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Berry Picking

Many days leave me feeling utterly spoiled.  Even with a huge bruise on my leg from handling a lamb who didn’t want to be medicated and scratches on my arms from moving through rough brush, I feel like the most fortunate person alive.

After a long day of work, I took a moment to walk slowly around my property, gathering berries.  Black raspberry season is just wrapping up – I was able to find about a cup of sweet, crunchy berries on my walk.  We do not have a large population of true blackberries with their vicious thorns and inevitable large spiders (what is it with the large spiders in the blackberry patches?).  Black raspberries are my favorite for saving for later.  In the depths of winter when nothing is in season, they are my go-to for a milkshake to boost my vitamin levels and shake the blues a bit.

I also found a few raspberries.  We have raspberries near the murderbarn.  I am not sure if they were intentionally planted or if they are wild volunteers, but the berries are not as sweet as I would like.  I only located and picked a few.

Our apple crop is out-of-control this year.  Our property contains dozens of old, shaggy apple trees dotted with mealy, dry, feral apples.  Only one tree produces tasty fruit, so I watch that tree carefully.  Last year was an off year, with only a few apples on the good tree.  This year, the tree is weighted with the bulk of crisp, lovely apples.  I’m already digging up that apple chutney recipe that was so delicious.

Our land does not support blueberries, which need a very acidic soil.  I am spoiled, again, from having access to wild mountain blueberries back in New Hampshire, where I grew up.  Planting cultivated ones doesn’t really appeal to me.  To me, cultivated blueberries are sour, not sweet, and lack the rich flavor of the wild-type berries.  So I will go to New Hampshire for blueberries and leave the cultivated ones for others to enjoy.

We do, however, have gooseberries.  I don’t recall the gooseberries fruiting before this year, but we have quite a few plants.  Anyone know what to do with these weird, blandish berries?  They have a texture like a kiwi and a bland sweet/tart flavor.  I’m open to ideas!

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Our BFL Yarn is Here

I am so happy with the BFL yarn that came back from Battenkill Fibers this year.

In past years, our BFL clip has been too small for me to send it to a mill.  Bluefaced Leicesters are bred to have light fleeces.  In the UK, this was done with the idea of reducing the fleecy bulk of Cheviots and Scottish Blackface ewes.  The ewes from these crossbreedings are known as mules, and they are famous for having better wool and more lambs than their mountain dams, but more fleece and ruggedness than their BFL sires.

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We just love our BFL sheep!  Here, Sally gets all of the petting she wants from farmer Matt.

In the US, where BFLs are not used as much for creating mule ewes, the small fiber clip is a bit of an issue for mill processing, which requires minimum amounts.  This year, with 17 adult ewes contributing, we finally have plenty of lovely yarn to sell.

The yarn itself is something else.  I have never had yarn so smooth, shimmery and soft, while not being ropey or hard at all.  I love how it shows off the dye efforts I’ve made.  It’s easy to envision this yarn as a luxury shawl or treasured scarf.  Slouchy hats would also be a great use for it.  I’m not saying that your BFL socks won’t stay up, but I am saying that this yarn deserves to be used doing what it does best, which is draping beautifully without pilling.  I chose colors that I thought would lend life and interest to single-color projects, though the colors complement each other well, too.

Our BFL yarn is fingering weight, 200 yards per skein.  

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Cloverworks Farm Greensboro Bend Yarn

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How Haying Works

By request, here’s a basic primer on how haying works!

First, some definitions:

Hay is grass and grass stems that animals eat.  It’s cut from fields that could also serve as pasture.  Correctly made, hay provides most or all of the nutrients an animal needs to survive the winter.  The best hay is greenish in color.  Whether fresh or in hay, the leaves of the grass provide the nutrition, while stalks and stems are roughage that animals often avoid eating.

Straw is the leftover stalk after a grain is harvested.  Oat straw and wheat straw are the yellowed, leftover stalks that the seedheads we know as oats and wheat grew on, respectively.  Straw is not a nutritious or complete ration for animals.

Silage is any crop that is stored in an anaerobic environment, effectively “pickled” for animal feed.  Commonly, corn is used as silage.  Corn growing at your local dairy farm isn’t palatable for people, but when the whole stalk is ground up and ensiled, cattle love it!  Corn silage is not safe for sheep, but Haylage, which is hay that is wrapped and slightly pickled is good feed for sheep.  Haylage and silage both require special storage to prevent pathogens that can cause catastrophic illness.

In all of the climates that have a dry season or deep snows, animals need some kind of forage for the period of time when grass is unavailable.  Winter forage production (both hay and root crops like mangels) and storage governed how many breeding animals could be overwintered, both before mechanization and now.  There was no use keeping an extra cow if she was just going to starve in March, so farmers took winter feed calculation seriously.

Making hay requires ripe grass and dry weather.  Ripe grass is a whole separate treatise, but a simple rule of thumb is that leafy species should have three leaves, and grass is best before the plants in the pasture go to seed.

Prior to mechanization, farmers cut hay with a scythe.  An efficient scythe operator might cut a couple of acres of hay in a day.   Without weather reports, farmers had to trust their wisdom and experience to predict the likelihood of 3-4 days of good dry weather.

Once the hay was cut, it needed to be raked up into windrows (long, linear piles) and then raked out again.  This ensures that the hay dries evenly, preventing damp spots that could rot your hay (and even cause fires) and excessive drying.  Hay that is too dry will crumble to dust during the baling process and be lost.

Before mechanization, hay was stored in stacks.  Most of us have seen childish renditions of farming where there are yellow haystacks everywhere.  That cultural idea is a relic from before the invention of baled hay.  Creating a haystack is a special skill that has all but vanished, though it is discussed in the book Far From the Madding Crowd, incidentally, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in historical sheepraising.

After two days of drying, with sessions of raking hay to spread it out and then raking it into windrows, modern hay is baled.  Bales are a nice, portable format to move hay around the farm to the animals that need it.

Three types of bales are common – small square bales, large square bales, and large round bales.  In the Northeast, small squares and large rounds are most common.

Small squares are probably what you are picturing if someone says the words “Bale of Hay”.  They are usually about 3/4 feet long, 18 inches wide, weigh about 35-45 pounds, and are easy to move with a bit of muscle.  We used this format of bale before we began making our own hay.  It was easy to load some in the bed of the truck, drive them to our farm and gradually feed them to the sheep.  For about 10 ewes, small squares were perfect.

However, when you start to manage large numbers of sheep, small bales become exhausting and impractical.  Back during my years working on a goat farm, we would feed upwards of 12-15 square bales a day for five to six months.  That’s a lot of bale-schlepping!  For my comparable numbers of ewes, we feed two round bales every other day.  Much less work for us since we have the tractors to do the heavy lifting for us.  We wrap our round bales in plastic to make those “marshmallow” bales you commonly see.  Not ideal, obviously, so we are looking for solutions that are better for the earth but ideally don’t require an enormous barn to store the bales.  We wrap the bales to protect them from damaging water, which can destroy a hay bale completely.

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For people interested in making hay, there are a wide variety of equipment options that cater to larger and smaller scales, different kinds of terrain, and personal preference.

We have two tractors, a 27 Horsepower Ford 1720 and an 80 Horsepower Zetor Major 80.  The Ford can power everything except our large mower and our baler.  The Zetor does those larger efforts, plus tough jobs like moving bales around and doing barn cleanout.

This is our smaller mower for small fields.  We have two drum mowers, one for small fields and one better suited to large fields.

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The drum mower spins at high speed, allowing small cutters to cut the grass evenly.  We prefer this mower to a disc mower because hitting a rock is less potentially catastrophic with this design.

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This is our side-delivery rake.  It’s a basic old rake – try to picture the two discs turning, causing a motion that always directs the grass leftward.  It neatly sweeps the cut grass into windrows.  I learned how to rake recently and I have to say that I enjoy the work.

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This is our tedder.  It is in a folded-up position right now – in operation, the spinning circles are in a line perpendicular to the tractor.  The tines on spinning circles pick up the mown hay and fluff it around, allowing it to dry evenly and breaking up clumps.

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Summer Arrives

Summer arrives to find the bobolinks have fledged from our neighbor’s hayfield.   Three streaky brown birds making little plink calls were flitting and bouncing around the pasture I set up for the sheep.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to provide habitat to this struggling species.

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We are so close to weaning time.  I know the ewes are ready to send their lambs off on their own for a while.  Some have probably already weaned their babies without my help.  For others,  it’s adorable yet concerning to see lambs who are nearly the same size as their mothers still nursing.  The ewes need pedicures and a spa treatment (or hoof trimming and some Selenium supplementation, depending on your perspective).

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We have two especially naughty lambs who have figured out how to slip under the electric fence.  They taunt the other lambs by eating the grass I am saving for later meals.  Sadly, one is a ewe lamb that I would have considered keeping, but I don’t really need troublemakers.  Worse, in the process of slipping out, the lambs have occasionally knocked down the fence and allowed other sheep to escape.  We do not want loose sheep in roads and on neighbor’s land.

Our haying efforts have produced 75 round bales so far.  We have several more fields waiting for first-cutting, but Matt is struggling with equipment breaking down.  First, the round baler wasn’t operating smoothly, so he needed to adjust the tension on the belts that roll the hay into a snowball.  Then, one of the bearings on the new mower seized, causing extensive damage to a part that is no longer made.  Good thing Matt is a decent welder.  He’ll need to replace the gnawed-off metal with in-fill, and then use a lathe to make it smooth and round again.  Yeesh.

I have learned how to rake the hay into windrows that the baler then scoops up and rolls.  There is a satisfying rhythm to it, like mowing the lawn.  Would you like to know more about how hay is made?  I’ve been debating whether or not to write a post explaining hay, so let me know if an explainer would be useful for you.

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Making a Few Changes

I’ve had a long-term struggle with this website and blog that I am finally ready to talk about.

There is a conflict between my efforts to sell yarn and my efforts to sell meat.  It seems like the folks who are here to see the sheep and the yarn aren’t always keen on meat, and the folks who want to know more about the meat might not have a whole lot of interest in the yarn.  I have two audiences and splitting the difference seems to be hurting my bottom line.  In order to make my farm viable, I have to market my lamb and yarn effectively.  To sell lamb, I have to talk about lamb and lamb recipes.  At the same time, I also want to talk about yarn and sheep for all of my friends who love sheep stories and fiber arts.

So I have come up with a compromise.  I know that most of my visitors read my blog posts when they show up on my farm Facebook page.   I now have a second Facebook Page, Cloverworks Farm Kitchen, where I will share blog posts that are about cooking, recipes and lamb.  Cloverworks Farm Kitchen is also available on Instagram.  So folks who like yarn and sheep can follow Cloverworks Farm, meat fans have Cloverworks Farm Kitchen, and if you love everything we do, follow both!  If you follow this blog using RSS, you’ll get all of the content to enjoy.

I would love to hear thoughts and feedback about this – it takes a lot of pressure off me to constrain my writing.  I have recently had a lot of thoughts about our current cooking culture, so I am eager to have both projects on hand.

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A sample of my recent “simple recipes” inspiration.

 

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Real Talk About Selling Lamb

Our first year selling lamb at a larger scale is almost over.  Time for an honest assessment of how our year has gone.

Our initial plan was to build both retail and wholesale capacity in Boston and New York.   We contacted several wholesalers and have one wholesale company to partner with.

We have also made sales in Boston and Holyoke, Massachusetts.

But so far, retail sales have been mainly to friends and family.  We have not developed ways to reach out in Boston.  My sister lives in Boston, but her friends and coworkers are mainly Hindu vegetarians.  I don’t really feel appropriate asking family to do my outreach for me in any case.

Wholesale has been a non-mover- I have not made any sales through our wholesale partner, nor have I had much success in getting our lamb into restaurants or stores near here.   The main issue is that my retail prices are really the best prices I can offer.  Even dropping base prices a dollar or two leaves retailers adding a 50-100% markup, pricing my lamb above (non-Welfare Certified, often imported) competitors.

The one bright spot of growth has been in my third-choice outlet: Farmer’s Markets.  We had tremendous success at Montpelier and today at the Craftsbury Holiday Market.  I want to pursue these markets, but they are frequently scheduled at the same times and  many have established lamb vendors and are not accepting new lamb vendors.  Further, going to markets in Vermont doesn’t really help to spread the word.  Vermont is fundamentally saturated for lamb sales

How can I reach consumers out-of-state more effectively?

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Cooking My Goose

If you follow this blog or my Instagram feed closely, you know that we got geese this year.     They started as nine tiny weird-ducks.  We let them outside, they lived with the lambs for a while, and then we left them to their own devices.

Thus freed, the geese spent their days honking about the yard.  While nibbling grass and “contributing fertility”, they rewired the hay baler a bit and nibbled on the trim of Matt’s car.  They came out to intimidate strangers, but also ran at the slightest hint of anyone trying to catch them.  A few times, they took off from the height of land where the house is situated, trying to fly.  Our neighbor commented that if they were planning to fly south, they weren’t likely to get much further than South Craftsbury (10 mi away).

Some research and a bunch of intent goose-staring led us to conclude that we had the usual straight-run combination of 2 geese and 7 ganders.   There’s no use in keeping so many ganders.  On a cold, sleety morning at 6am, we rounded up our geese in the dark and tried to ID our two females.  We picked them up and tossed them out, then loaded five ganders into some pet crates to go to Masse Poultry, where we said our goodbyes.   While geese and ducks are often challenging to pluck clean, ours came out fantastically tidy.

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On to the cooking.  After being honked at and harassed by our own livestock, I was ready to try eating a goose for the first time.   Consulting the internet, I decided to go for “low and slow” to achieve a perfect medium cooking on the breast meat, and took the internet’s advice about separating the legs from the carcass and cooking them longer.  Readers:  Charles Dickens was right.  Goose is amazing!  Overcooked, I’m sure it would taste like an old shoe, but done just medium, it’s like extra-rich roast beef.  And the grease is nothing to waste!  I cooked brussels sprouts and potatoes in the grease I ladled from the pan.  They were heavenly – rich and decadent but still somehow light.

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We might have some geese for sale next year, but we definitely have lamb available now to anyone who wants it.  Please contact me to inquire!

I want to extend special thanks to Suzanne Podhaiser, who has provided invaluable technical support while we figured out how to raise our geese.

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Porcupine

Poor 1616.   When I saw her this morning, I thought she must just have some lingering frost on her nose.  But closer inspection showed that she in fact had a dozen porcupine quills stuck in her nose!

My working theory is that the porcupine came to dine on the salt I put out for the ewes.  If you ate grass all day, wouldn’t it be better with a bit of seasoning?  The ewes think so.  Anyhow, 1616 is one of my bolder Border Leicesters, so if anyone were likely to attempt a porcupine inspection, it would be her.  I felt bad leaving her, but two attempts to catch her had her wary of me.  I can’t outrun a sheep, so I have to outsmart them.

Cue Matt, some pliers and the grain-bucket.  We shook the grain and got a whole group of ewes to converge.  Then, it was just a matter of grabbing 1616 by a leg and sitting her on her bum for extraction.  She didn’t even wince as I plucked the spines out.  We are lucky that they weren’t lodged deeply and I am reasonably sure that she will be just fine.

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Meanwhile, the rams are on-duty and we will expect our first lambs on or around March 1st.  With the Bluefaced Leicesters in the barn and the Border Leicesters on pasture, we will have purebred registered stock from both breeds available next year.  I have a lot of interest in Bluefaced Leicester lambs, but I know that for many Vermont shepherds, especially ones with larger commercial ambitions, the Border Leicesters would be an excellent choice.

Bob has been pretty low-key with his Border girls, but Fred has been sniffing and chasing a bunch.  On the 20th, we will take Fred and Bob out and put Hooligan or Oliver in with the Blues(depending on whether or not Hooligan is sold) and Samson in with the Borders.  We won’t have any early lambs this year, and we will also avoid late ones.  Rams will be out by December 15th this time.

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Preparations for Rhinebeck are well underway as we also admire the beauty of peak foliage.  There’s nothing more wonderful than a perfect, glorious fall.

 

 

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A Big Opportunity

A while ago, I had thought to put in my application for a booth at Rhinebeck (formally, the New York State Sheep and Wool Gathering) because I had heard that it could take a decade to get a booth.  So I figured I’d just send applications their way for a few years while I put together a schedule of fiber festivals where I can sell my yarn.

So imagine my surprise when an email arrives on Monday from the Rhinebeck organizers saying that they have a need for some substitute vendors, and would I like to sell yarn at the festival?  YES!

So I am going to be a Rhinebeck vendor this year, provided the State of New York processes my application for a Tax ID.  But I will assume that that will happen and I’ll be on my way to put some sheep in the breed barn and then we will set up our booth in a location TBD.

Wish me luck!

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Happenings on the Farm

We have had a busy few weeks at the farm!

Having acquired our final group of ewes we plan to purchase, our flock is at full strength.  Such numbers require that I move pasture frequently, especially with the dry summer we have had.  Grass growth is stunted and we are moving the sheep off our land and onto land borrowed from neighbors.

Meanwhile, one of our Rhode Island Red hens took the depopulation of the flock from raccoon predation seriously enough that she decided to sit on a clutch of eggs.  We were afraid that engaging in social media would jinx this, especially since RIRs are not well-known as broody hens, but she was a determined lady and now we have nine little chicks!  I have never had a successful broody before, and we’ve been checking them like excited children would.

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The angry-looking one on its own is my favorite.  Chickens- more fearsome than their reputation suggests!
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Momma doesn’t want help or visitors.

We’re ramping up to breeding season with a concerted effort to improve everyone’s nutrition and plans for a hoof-trimming day tomorrow.   I’ll be going to bed early tonight to ready myself.  The rams are banished to a distant patch up the road to keep them from hopping the fence to talk to the girls.   Our plan is to put the BFLs in the barn feeding on hay, and the borders in the fields eating the last of the grasses as winter looms.  We will keep them outdoors until the ground freezes (we can’t put the portable fenceposts into frozen ground- I know from experience!).  More lambs are planned for March!

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Somerhill Bethlehem came to visit me.  I love this friendly ewe.

So the other major preparation for breeding season is cleaning out the barn.  We’ve let the bedded pack dry and ferment as long as we could under cover, but now it needs to go out.  We considered our manure pile placement very carefully, selecting a place far from drainage areas and where any runoff would be primarily absorbed by the soil before hitting waterways.  Matt likes some good tractor work now and then, though this task is no easy feat.

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Our skies are hazy with smoke from Western fires.  Earlybird trees are starting their transition.  We are also making final preparations for some fiber festivals coming up.