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Considering Sheep?

I often meet folks who are considering getting sheep. Many bashfully tell me that they only want a small flock and some seem to worry that they are wasting my time asking questions.

Questions are never a waste of time! Judging from the kinds of questions that I see in sheep groups on Facebook, more people should ask all of their questions first and obtain their sheep second!

So I thought I’d throw together a post about how to figure out if you are ready to become a shepherd. Naturally, it is my opinion that sheep are wonderful animals that will bring you years of joy. Care for 3-5 sheep is roughly equivalent to care for 2 dogs. The chores are different but the time and commitment are comparable. Like dogs, sheep are not a great choice for people who travel for long periods of time or who don’t like to spend time outdoors.

Feed:

What will you feed your sheep? Sheep require fresh grass or hay daily. I am often asked how much land a sheep needs. Sources will tell you that you can have 2-5 sheep per acre. People think “perfect, I’ll start with 5!” and soon, their acre is denuded, their sheep are hopping the fence. Once the grass is gone, the sheep must eat hay year-round in a drylot. Probably not the bucolic life the shepherd imagined! So start small. If you have two acres, start with three sheep only. And remember, if you plan to breed, those lambs count towards your totals as they age.

Before you click away because you only have a half-acre of open land, consider this: We rented farms for 6 years before purchasing a property. You might have neighbors who would love to have the sheep come visit and do some mowing. As long as they don’t have loose dogs, sheep would be a benefit to them and their grass a resource for you.

Water is a similar consideration. Hauling buckets get tiring, but loading them in a vehicle or ATV works well. Sheep do need fresh water each day, about one gallon per sheep. This water is returned to the soil as urine, which promotes grass growth and health.

Housing:

Sheep don’t need an elaborate structure to live in. A 3-sided barn or shed that shields the sheep from the prevailing wind and weather is plenty for most breeds, even in Northern climates. In fact, heated or insulated barn facilities can cause pneumonia. Sheep acclimate to outdoor temperatures readily. We used to use a Garage-In-A-Box plastic-canvas structures as sheep sheds – they worked very well and the sheep were always cozy. Winter feed storage is likely more of a concern, but that can go in a Garage-in-a-Box as well! Two good-sized structures, one for feed and one for animals will probably set you back $1000.

Fencing:

Non-farm folks picture sheep behind a classic wooden fence. Erase that idea from your mind – sheep are clever fence-evaders and that picturesque fence will be defeated in no time. We recommend a solid wire fence or an electric fence (or a combination thereof). Portable electric fences with solar chargers have advanced significantly in effectiveness in recent years. About $1000 will get you plenty of fencing for a small flock and a good charger that will keep that fence working. Consider that your fence needs to keep predators out as well as keeping sheep in – that is part of the impetus to consider electric fencing.

Neighbors:

Sheep are pretty quiet and should not be noxious or odorous if correctly managed. Most neighbors should welcome picturesque and pleasant sheep. Trouble comes if your fencing isn’t sufficient and the sheep get into gardens. Likewise, dogs who wander over from the neighbors presents a serious threat to your sheep. Non-working dogs worry sheep and should not be permitted to access them. Similarly, sheep forums are full of stories of farm-owners own dogs turning on sheep and causing harm. Your sheep deserve safety – if you have dogs who don’t obey commands and who show prey drive, consider owning less-vulnerable livestock.

Vet:

A friend pointed out that I should note that The Internet is not a veterinarian. Neither is a Facebook group, nor someone you know who used to have some sheep. Set yourself up with a knowledgeable veterinarian before your sheep arrive.

Meat:

Here comes the awkward part: Based on seeing hobby-scale farms come and go and struggle, it is my opinion that if you intend to breed your sheep, you need to have a plan for your excess rams and low-quality ewes that involves the freezer. Too many hobbyists want to breed but do not want to slaughter any sheep. Such hobbyists soon find that once all of their friends have a few pet wethers, there’s nowhere else to send the results of their breeding activity. Too many neglected livestock in backyards are not well-fed or well-managed as pets. I would sincerely discourage anyone from thinking that offering their animals on Craigslist or Facebook as “Free to a Good Home” will get them a good home of any kind. So that’s my advice to you- either breed and eat or don’t breed and have some fiber pets. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Wool:

Managing your animals for wool takes more effort and dedication than a layperson expects. If only it were as simple as buying sheep, feeding them, and getting perfect wool each spring. Wool is susceptible to many ills. The most common one is hay damage. Any wool with hay on it or in it will make poor yarn and fabric. Any hay feeder that is above the height of the back of the sheep will cause some amount of hay to be deposited on sheep backs. The best feeders direct sheep to eat from a low height (which is natural for them anyway, as that’s where grass grows). Designs for feeders that keep wool clean aren’t hard to find. Consider that plants in pasture, like thistle and burdock, can also cause damage to your sheep’s wool.

Poor nutrition is the next cause of damage in wool, followed by shearing at incorrect times. If you are breeding your sheep, shearing should occur ahead of or just after lambing to avoid a break in the wool that occurs from maternal stress during birth. If you have no interest in wool from your sheep and want to reduce maintenance effort, hair breeds are great.

Breeds:

Which breed you choose is probably the least important thing about your new sheep. It’s natural, though, to be excited as you go to a fair or read online about the wide variety of sheep breeds available. If you have already decided not to breed, there’s probably no reason not to get one or two sheep from a variety of breeds so you can enjoy all kinds of sheep and fiber. If you do plan to breed and keep sheep, a single, purebred breed will get you the most consistent lambing results. We raise two pure breeds so that we can plan on how much feed they’ll need, what kind of behavior to expect and what kind of wool we will see. Here’s a bit more about breeds, for those interested.

Getting Started:

So you think you might want sheep after all this? Great!

If you have more questions, here are some great resources:

Me – get in touch and I’ll answer any burning questions you have. I enjoy helping, so don’t be shy.

Kim Goodling at Grand View Farm offers courses in sheepraising and mentorship.

My favorite book for beginning sheepraisers is Storey’s Guide to Sheep.

My preferred equipment suppliers are Agway and Premier 1 Supplies

A good internet resource is Maryland Small Ruminants Sheep 101 page

(no lambs yet – this pic is just to intrigue you)
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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.

*****

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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The Reality of Yarn

Don’t get me wrong.  Playing with yarn gives me great joy.  I love the texture, the sheepy scent, the slight dust of it.  I love the whole sensory experience and I am always happy to have more yarn.

This year, instead of having our yarn made into pre-measured skeins at the mill, we elected to have it delivered on huge cones to be made into skeins at home.  Matt built a skein winder that automatically spins and measures each skein.  Such a winder would normally cost $350-400.  He made ours out of spare parts and some pvc pipe for about $150.

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But please understand that this is Day 12 of winding skeins.  I have rewatched the entirety of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” (11 hours and 30 minutes, for those counting at home) while winding skeins, and that just covered winding the white BFL and 1/3 of the white Border Leicester.  I watched Ken Burns “The Roosevelts” as well.  I also watched the whole “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series (23 hours 20 minutes!) while making the natural color Border Leicester skeins and white mini-skeins needed for new patterns that will be released soon.

Each skein comes off the line frequently enough to make tasks more complex than television impossible.  Likewise, my hands need to stay clean, precluding anything like cooking or dyeing other yarn.  Watching something informative makes me feel like my brain is engaged with something meaningful.  I know I’m letting my nerd flag fly by admitting to my preference for documentaries and straightforward storytelling.  The current selection of human-failure-intensive prestige dramas don’t appeal: to me, the world has enough genuine sorrow and pain.  I cannot enjoy watching people suffer for entertainment.  I left human services forever in 2010 for a reason.

I am happy to report that I am winding skeins from the final cone of natural-color Border, and I am really, really happy to be so nearly done.  Stay tuned for 2019 yarn!20190521_092711

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Lamb-burgers

cloverworks farm vermont lamb

Matt kept saying “MMMMMMM” when he tried this simple lamburger.  It was hard to focus on my own lamb burger with all of the UMMM in the background.  The richness of the lamb, the creamy tang of the cheese and the tart mineral of the capers blends into a delicious medley.

As an aside – too many food blogs hide the recipe under a semi-relevant novel of personal experiences.  I’m going to share recipes on the top

This burger is incredibly simple:

  • 1/4-1/3 pound of ground lamb per patty
  • salt and pepper
  • 1-2 oz goat cheese
  • 1 heaping teaspoon of capers, without liquid
  • homemade or purchased bun of your choice (or no bun at all if you are avoiding carbs).  I recommend toasting and buttering the bun.

Naturally, we made this burger from lamb raised here on the farm.  I recommend buying grassfed lamb – 1 pound of ground should feed 3 adults or two adults and two children.   You can always buy pastured lamb from here, of course!

The key to a really succulent burger is salting and peppering the meat before you form the patty.  It takes a little trial and error to find the right amount of salt for you, but once you gain some confidence, your burgers will start to sing.

I prefer grilled burgers to pan-frying.  I like to semi-smoke them slowly over a lower heat.  Medium to medium rare is the rule in this house for optimum juiciness.  I have to credit Matt for helping me to learn to appreciate the texture of a medium rare burger.

I considered melting the goat cheese onto the burger, but found it was actually a nice temperature contrast on warm day to have cool goat cheese.  Plus, I didn’t have to worry about valuable (and pricey!) goat cheese dripping off the burger into the flames.

Assembling the burger is simple – toasted bottom bun, burger, cheese, capers nestled into the cheese, top bun, GO.

Enjoy this perfect weekday-dinner burger and let me know what you think!

 

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An Ice Storm

Last night, we could hear the logging trucks trying to drag their loads up the temporary road.  At the top if the hill, the skidder helped pull the truck onto the ice-covered road using its chained tires.  The logging job is almost done, but our logger is scrambling to get the crop off the field before the thaw starts to create mud.  We are pleased by their work- the sheep will have plenty of grassy areas interspersed with shade for the hottest days.

We had a decent ice storm, causing traffic snarls in the more populated counties and causing us to go looking for the ice-devices for our boots.  Having fooled around with Stabilicers, YakTrax and other similar items, we have gone hardcore.  We use these:

icedevice

So the rule is “no walking on the deck or stairs with the ice devices on”.  Predictably enough.

The sheep, geese and chickens have taken the storm in stride.  While we chip away at frozen metal, the geese walk with confidence.  Did you know that they have little claws at the ends of their toes?  Ignore the webbing for a moment, because those claws are sharp and can do damage!  The geese appreciate that warmer temperatures have kept their water thawed and entertaining.

I appreciate that Matt went down to the woodchip pile created by the loggers.  He hauled some chips back, and used them to treat our driveway when we ran out of salt.  I have to say that the chip-traction is even better than the salt-traction.  And a little friendlier to the earth, too.

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The path from the house

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And the rest of the driveway

The sheep are protected from the grim weather as they enter the final stretch of pregnancy.  They have been relaxing, eating and growing ever-wider.  I’m really hoping for lots of healthy lambs.

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The sheep were not untouched by the ice, though:

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Manure-sicles.

 

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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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Going to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival

It is that time of year again!   We are headed to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, where we have 350 skeins of Border Leicester yarn to sell along with many other fiber goodies.

For starters, both my Northern Borders and Derby Line yarns have been selling well.  Even though the Montpelier Farmer’s Market isn’t an ideal venue for selling an item specific to the small part of the population that knits, the yarn colors and the tactile joy of touching yarn draw visitors in.  In fact, I have sold enough yarn that I need to consider dyeing additional yarn to round out my color availability.  My concern is not having the right amounts of the colors people want most.  Sales at the farmer’s market have depleted some of my colors!

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Another significant offering this year is hats.  Specifically, this Kep design that my mother has developed.  Keps are a traditional slouchy Fair Isle hat that features our Northern Borders yarn nicely.  Mom has cranked out six hats, while I am still working on hat number one.  She is really a knitting powerhouse.

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I also have gobs of BFL wool that wants dyeing and final touches.  Good thing Great British Bakeoff is available again!

The to-do list for the sheep is no shorter.  Ten lambs ship on 9/27, breeding groups need to be arranged next week, and everyone gets a Selenium shot because our soils are very deficient.  That is a whole lot of work!

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Lessons from the Farmers Market

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My friend Mike helped get the setup done.

I had my goods for sale at Montpelier for the first time yesterday.  I still have a lot to learn about effectively selling my goods.

  • Don’t forget your tent!   The market was on Saturday morning.  On Friday evening that I realized that my pop-up tent was 150 miles away in Keene, NH with my parents.  Oops.  I didn’t get a sunburn but I did have to model my rather dweeby hat that I wear while doing fieldwork.  I always wear a hat because sunscreen just melts off me in a river of sweat while I work.
  • I still have a “Meat and Yarn Don’t Mix” issue.  My booth had a lot of yarn-based visual appeal, which attracted yarn lovers.  But the Venn Diagram of Yarn Lovers and Sausage Lovers doesn’t have a big enough overlap space, so I wasn’t able to get yarnies to try or to buy the sausage.  At the same time, I am worried that the huge yarn display was actually discouraging the sausage-seeking folks from coming over.  Or maybe they didn’t see the signs.  Bigger signs are a must for next time!
  • Speaking of sausage:  You would think that sampling out sausage would be easy!  Cook a link, cut it up, feed people.  But it isn’t.  Law requires that hot food be served hot, but I had long pauses between visitors where cut-up samples would have cooled.  So I pre-cooked and pre-chopped my sample sausage for reheating on a little butane stove.  Regrettably, the stove caused samples to crisp up and dry out, and one woman even complained (very politely and informatively) that I wasn’t doing the sausage justice with the dry samples.  I wish I knew of a way to better offer samples of our juicy sausage- I don’t expect people to stay to have a sample whipped up for them personally.
  • Continuing my sausage thought-process: In an ideal world, I would be able to sell them as a cooked snack sandwich, but being a food vendor is really different from being an agricultural product vendor and we would need to invest time and money in regulatory compliance.  I would also need another person at the farmer’s market to handle that.  I should look for a vendor who might like to sell my sausage on commission.
  • I noticed that of the two varieties of yarn that I now have for sale, everyone touched both kinds but all of the buyers bought my newer yarn because of the soft, fluffy texture.  I will add the new yarn to the store soon.
  • I am proud to say that I remembered almost everything I would need for a day at the market- markers, tape, cashbox, etc.  I remembered everything except a plate to put the tongs on and my coffee.  Realizing I had forgotten my coffee was disappointing, to say the least.