The Last Four Days

Friday: I was cleaning up the house and buying groceries in anticipation of shearing on Sunday and my mom coming up to celebrate her birthday among the sheep.

Saturday: At 8am, Mom calls to say that Grandma is dying.  I try to keep personal stuff off this blog so I haven’t talked extensively about this, but Grandma has been sick with dementia and heart failure for the last five years.  She went into comfort care at the end of February.   I finish chores and hop in the truck, but I get to New Hampshire about 30 minutes after Grandma passed.   We spend Saturday together as a family, just trying to comfort each other after such a long journey with Grandma’s illness.  We toasted Grandma with white wine with ice cubes in it, as was her preference and shared memories of her.

I had called Mary, our shearer to cancel shearing, but I realize that some distraction is just the right thing for the family.   So I asked Mary if I could un-cancel our shearing on Sunday morning, so we could still have Mom’s birthday activity.  This may sound a little heartless, but I hope you will believe me when I say that there was little left to process in this passing.  We all were able to say our farewells to Grandma and we’ve been mourning every loss of memory and capacity as they have transpired.  Her passing was a release and a reprieve from suffering.

Saturday at Midnight:  I drove 3 hours back to Vermont and arrived at 10pm.  Matt let me know that Pearl the BFL was in labor.  At midnight, she delivered a ewe and a lamb.  We checked them throughout the night, and on little sleep I woke up early to prepare for shearing.

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Just born. Our barn lighting is that bright- it really is midnight!

Sunday Morning When I got to the barn at 7am, I found Amethyst the BFL in labor as well as Ohio-72!  Ohio-72 had two rams at 7:30 and Amethyst had a ram and a ewe at 8:30.   Matt scrambled to repair a broken lambing jug so we could house all of these new lambs.

I prepared the pen for shearing and lugged our shearing board out to the barn.  Needless to say, we weren’t entirely ready for Mary when she arrived to shear, but she knew we’d had a long weekend already.  We were up and running in about 20 minutes.  It took 4 hours to shear the whole flock.  The ewes all looked relieved to be free of their hot fleeces.  Meadowlark stopped panting.

We all enjoyed lunch together, dining on the breakfast sandwiches I had meant to make in the morning!   Then we sat and relaxed for a bit before going to to the garage to sort some fleeces.  Mom and I have an arrangement to get the wool to one of the mills we plan to use this year and we know we need to get it to them ASAP.  We started skirting the 13 white Border  Leicester fleeces and made it through 9 of them.  The necks and backs of the fleeces were dirty and we threw away all of the britch wool, but the sides were perfect.

By evening, I was starting to feel a little scratchiness in my throat.  We feted Mom with a lamb loin roast and brussels sprouts and potatoes.  We had all of the ingredients for the cake I had meant to make on Saturday, but Mom wasn’t really feeling the need for more food, so we just ate the oranges instead.  None of us had slept properly in the last few days, so we were all in bed by 8pm.

Monday: I woke up on Monday feeling very poorly.  Mom and I got it together to finish the wool skirting, but Mom felt like she’d rather leave early than contract whatever was brewing inside me.  I took to the couch and wrapped myself in blankets, and Mom headed home.  Poor Matt has had to do all of the animal management for the rest of Monday and the beginning of Tuesday.

Tuesday: I felt much better after a good lie-down and a sound sleep.  Despite still feeling weak and headache-y, Matt and I did our routine to release ewes and lambs from the bonding jugs where they’ve been getting used to each other for two days.  We dosed each lamb and all of the ewes with Vitamin E and BoSE, and trimmed the ewes hooves.  We docked tails only on BFL ewe lambs, leaving the tails long enough to cover the bum.  Neither ewe lamb squirmed, so I think we were successful at minimizing discomfort (docking early and banding between the bones of the tail makes a huge difference).

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Matt wins, but barely.  This ewe will feel better once she has her vitamins and pedicure.  Some people go to spas for that!

We are now relaxing after too much stress, sorrow and sickness.  We didn’t want to go to Town Meeting in case my illness is contagious, so that will wait for next year.  It looks like Summer the ewe will have her lambs very soon, so the excitement continues even as we try to sit down for a minute.   The farm never sleeps, even if the farmers would really like to.

 

The “Shovel” Problem

Are Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) sheep hardy enough?

I’ve been talking to Lisa, a long time Bluefaced Leicester breeder.  We both agree that we are tired of some of the misconceptions about Bluefaced Leicesters – that they are just for small-scale hobbyists, that they don’t have a sustainable genetic presence in the US, and that “Every ram is sold with a shovel.”

It’s the last point that I was considering tonight.  We are having a blizzard at the moment.  A foot of snow has fallen, and it looks like more is yet to come.   Temperatures have fallen to -25F some nights in the last month, and we know we aren’t done with cold temperatures.

We knew that the Border Leicesters would be fine.  They have thick wool that protects them from virtually everything and are a popular breed in this climate.  But come to find out, the BFLs are no less game for the weather.  While I was out doing chores, they were out in the snow.  Inside, others had snowfall piled on their backs, unmelted by body heat; a sure sign that they are fully weather-insulated.  They seem happy and healthy.

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This ewe is black, in case you can’t tell.

I have noted in the past that it is a challenge to keep some of my Bluefaced Leicester ewes in top body condition.  I’ve recently learned that there are some bloodlines in the breed that carry this trait, but that it is possible to avoid those lines.  Some of my sheep who are leanest carry those lines.  Now I know!  Fortunately, Fred the ram is a the easiest of easy keeper, so we can select our way away from this tendency.  We also have more than 50% of the flock without those lines.  One might think that the fleece fancy has caused this issue, but I believe that it was an honest mistake.  It is possible that the ram was just well-fed and appeared more adequate than his genotype turned out.  The solution to this problem is improved, standardized recordkeeping, not the blame game.

Admittedly, some Bluefaced Leicesters are kept mainly for fleece.   Their fleeces are light, though, and while some sheep are kept as pets, the cost and challenge of finding rams means that most flocks that are larger breeding operations have a meat operation, too.  The difference is that when you are catering to fiber lovers, it can be awkward to co-market your meat.  So many farms that do both separate the marketing in a way that farmers with sheep raised purely for meat don’t need to.  The goal is the same, but the conversation looks different.

In Britain, they are fond of the saying that “every Bluehead Ram is sold with a shovel” so you can bury him when he dies.  British sheep management is much different than ours, and it’s not really a surprise that more sheep die when there is no shelter, and when a ram is put in with 60 or 80 ewes to breed.  Are Blues reasonably hardy?  Yes, absolutely.  Are they as hardy as Scottish Blackfaces?  Perhaps not quite, but they have more lambs, more meat and nicer wool than a Blackface.  A little shelter and basic care isn’t too much to pay for that.  So I don’t take British grousing about BFLs too seriously.

I am raising Bluefaced Leicesters because I think they have one of the strongest suits of genetic and economic potential among breeds that have desirable wool.  I still feel this way, and I hope I can help others see it too.

 

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Scarves

I am offering 20% off our scarves at Our Etsy Shop   Offer code: FLEECENAVIDAD

The photos don’t quite do these justice.  Five of the scarves are made from the last of my Cormo yarn and two from our natural-color Bluefaced Leicester.  The softness, comfort and drape is unmatched.  Even wool skeptics will find these scarves next-to-the-skin pleasant.  Dad and I are really proud of these gorgeous scarves.  We think they are a sustainable gift worth giving (or a gift to yourself- after all, you’ve worked hard this year!)

Please feel free to get in touch with any questions.

 

Preparing for the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival

Every year has been a little different at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds in Tunbridge, VT, September 30-October 1.  Even if you don’t knit, it’s a ton of fun with great food and lots of opportunities to learn more about fibercraft.

In the past, I have brought natural-color Cormo X yarn – soft yarn in natural white, gray and brown shades.   Additionally, I’ve brought some hand-processed batts for handspinners and felters.

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This year is a little different.  The last run of Cormo X yarn will be for sale, available in eight (yes!) attractive and wearable colors plus three natural shades.  We will be debuting our Bluefaced Leicester yarn, which is soft and silky with a subtle sheen.  I hope you are as excited as I am to touch this awesome yarn.  Our BFL yarn comes in two natural colors and supplies are limited.

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We will also be offering raw fleece in several formats.  We have small packets of hand-selected Bluefaced Leicester and Border Leicester locks for crafting.  Border Leicester fleece is on offer in larger volumes.  I know many handspinners with they could sample more fleeces with a little less commitment to a whole sheep.  I have chosen to offer fleece in smaller purchase units so that you can enjoy a pound or three of quality fleece without being tired of it by the end.  I’ve been there.

Additionally, gorgeous and intriguing pelts made by Vermont Natural Sheepskins will be on offer in both white and natural shades.

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So please come by our booth in the animal barn.  Friendly lambs want to nibble you, and I want to hear what you think of this blog.

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We Went to the Festival

And I sold lots of yarn, batts and pelts.

Saturday started off with lots of visitors inspecting the goods, but few purchases.  I was anxious that no one would be in a buying mood!  But suddenly around 12:30, an unheard “buy-things-now” alarm went off and suddenly 4 pelts, a pile of yarn and half of my batts went to new homes.  Meanwhile, Matt was manning the sheep pen and chatting about Bluefaced Leicesters and Cormo with all comers.  The sheep who came this week weren’t as friendly as the 2014 crew, so they hung back while children reached for them.  Eleanor, Phoebe and Chickadee are happy to be home, but maybe a little braver than they were before their eye-opening experience.

Patterns were a huge seller. The Climbing Trellis Mittens and the Vermont Sheepscape Sweater were standout performers.  Unlike our festival experience in 2014, though, the pattern purchases didn’t seem to inspire yarn purchases – the yarn was bought generally after the customer made a few observations like”Wow, soft” and “Amazing quality.”  The yarn, made at Hampton’s Fiber Mill, was as good as anything at the show.  I did get to brag a bit about my mother’s pattern-design and knitting skill, as the samples she had knitted me were greatly admired.

With respect to our booth display, it was hard not to feel inadequate compared to other vendors.  My cobbled-together booth with materials lent to me by Mom and a coworker reflected our relative inexperience.  The fact that we arrived at 8:30 on Saturday morning and were still frantically searching for a screwdriver ten minutes before showtime probably reinforced that.  However, once people started milling more, the slightly disjointed character of my display seemed to matter less, and the presence of adorable sheep mattered more.

Saturday was devoted to sales, but Sunday offered lulls in the booth traffic that allowed Phoebe to shop and permitted me to cruise other booths and vendors to make and renew some contacts.   Shepherds don’t meet up often, so this was one of my few opportunities to meet friends from farms a few hours away.

Some familiar faces included Wing and a Prayer Farm, whose proprietor Tammy I admire tremendously for her fiber skills and her ability to share and expand fibercraft to new audiences with her activities and workshops.  We’ve got a pending phone date.  I caught up with Peggy at Savage Hart Farm, too.  She had sausage for sale, so we compared notes about having sausage made.  She’s been my go-to recommendation when people have contacted me about breeding stock, since I didn’t have any spare lambs this year or last year.  I also had a brief chat with Cindy at Ewe and I Farm.  We met years ago doing Holistic Management.  Perhaps most critically, I had a meeting with Hilary Chapin of Smiling Sheep Farm, which allowed us to conspire more about bringing more Bluefaced Leicesters to the Northeast from the Mid-West and West.  Hilary has an outlook on husbandry and  an understanding of sheepraising that I largely share – sheep must express both form and function, and we can’t excuse low quality, even in a rare or unusual breed.

The main takeaway may be that I finally feel a little like Sheep and Pickle Farm is on the right track.  People remember the farm, people have read articles in Vermont’s Local Banquet that I’ve written, and Matt is engaged in shepherding with me.  He is developing his own areas of expertise in haying and tractorwork while he also learns more about the science of sheep.  Phoebe has learned a great deal in her year-or-so of sheep education, and her help was invaluable as we hastily packed up at the end of Sunday, completely exhausted from smiling and chatting so much.

 

 

 

More Sheep and Wool Festival Preparation

Just a taste of what I’m bringing to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival this year.  I have about 100 skeins of yarn, hot off the mill(?), soft, huggable pelts from lambs and adults, hand-carded batts, some natural and some hand-dyed, and patterns.  My mom wrote a nifty new cowl pattern that we are excited to share with you!

Some Sheep Updates, because I like doing them:

  • With all of the maintenance mowing we’ve been able to do with the new tractor, I can finally say that the sheep are really thriving.  It’s hard to find a spine or ribs on the Bluefaced Leicesters, and the Cormos are looking better, brighter and healthier than ever.
  • Peggy, who is probably about ten years old, is still going strong.  I thought I should cull her, but she has teeth enough and is keeping up with the herd very comfortably.
  • Tardis and Dalek are getting ever friendlier.  Eleanor is a ham, and is fat enough to be made into a ham.  She is the size of my adult Cormos at the age of six months.  Little Moose is taller but leaner, and Marianne is lagging in growth a little.  She gets extra grain at feeding time.
  • The rams deeply resent being separated from the ewes, but have nevertheless been great ram-bassadors in my front yard, greeting passers-by.
  • Eleanor, Chickadee and Phoebe (sheep) will be at the Sheep and Wool Festival, along with me, Matt and Phoebe (person).  I earnestly can’t wait to see you there.

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival

Somehow, getting ready for my second Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival seems like it will be more challenging than the first.

First, I am not currently certain whether I will have yarn or not for the show.  With three weeks to go, it would be helpful to know if yarn is happening or not.   The issue is that the owner of my mill recently had surgery, and I know from experience that recovery is pretty variable, so we don’t know if he will have time to process my order or not.   I am hoping to bring the fleece to sell raw if spinning can’t take place, but it’s all up in the air at present.  This is not a complaint or an indictment of anyone- it’s just the way that cookies crumble when you’re dealing with small businesses owned by real people, and I know that.

Second, I am hoping to have sausages back soon from the lambs I dropped off a few weeks ago.  The slaughterhouse told me that they had run low on casings, so I await them awaiting their casing order.  I will not have sausage for sale at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival.  The logistics of bringing it and the insurance and licensing implications thereof are too much to deal with.  If you want some sausage (and you do, based on the deliciousness of the last batch!), contact me now.

Third, with uncertainty about yarn hanging over my head, I’ve been madly processing all of the non-yarn fleece into batts for sale.  I now have a cellar full of beautiful natural-colored and hand-dyed batts.  I will confess that I am scared because I’m a newbie dyer and I have a persistent nightmare about getting mountains of phone calls about dye washing out of finished knits!   Here’s hoping I didn’t mess it all up too badly.  Does anyone know of a way to test a dye-job that doesn’t chew up too much of the dyed material?

And Fourth, I learned recently through helpful Facebook crowdsourcing that brochures are hopelessly old-fashioned and that post-cards are the way to go.  It’s likely that friends of the farm saved me a fair $100 on printing costs while also updating my tastes.  Thanks, friends!  I designed what I hope will be a very attractive card with some charming sheep photos on it and a list of available products.

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A combination of Eleanor and Little Moose’s fleece

 

End of the Summer

 

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The ram lambs left on the 12th of the month, so the flock is down to the girls all dining in the Donkey Pasture, and the boys, banished to mow the lawn and subsist on shrubs in the periphery of the fields.   The guys were quite large when they left, and I’m looking forward to a goodly amount of Chorizo sausage in the near future.  You should be, too – let me know if you’d like some!

We sheared Fred and the ewe lambs on the 21st.  I am gradually getting better at shearing, though I’ve only done it assisted by some sheep-holder-downers.  With Phoebe, Matt and my parents involved, we were still not actually overstaffed for the project.  The first two sheep looked a little gnawed-on, but the second two looked great.  Now that I feel comfortable with the blade, I’ll work my way up to doing it mostly on my own!

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We had a good scare from little Fred.  We FAMACHA’ed all of the lambs, and his lower eyelids were WHITE.  I’m not sure if the recent rains gave him an extra large dose of worms or if he has lower innate resistance, but some giant doses of dewormer and some NutriDrench seem to have straightened him out.  I was pretty worried for the first day or so until he really brightened up.

While I’m going to start flushing the ewes (feeding increased nutrition to help stimulate large lambing rates), I am also starting my preparation for the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival.  Because Michael is having knee surgery, it seems uncertain as to whether I’ll have raw wool or yarn to sell from the Cormos, but I’ll have some gorgeous, cuddle-able BFL on offer at the show in any case (unless it vanishes first- I sold a pound of it today!)

Even though having only three ram lambs for meat sales means that this year will be a wash financially, I’m still really thrilled to be poised for good lambing and a better showing next year.

 

What goes right, what goes wrong.

I had a long to-do list for last Saturday.   The 4th Doctor needed shearing and the lambs needed to be weaned, which entailed moving them to a field near where I work.

The first trip, at 9:30 in the morning, was to set up the paddock at work in Cambridge, 35 minutes from the farm.  We got this done rapidly, though the pasture had to be carved out of the middle of the field so that the sheep would have a shelter tree.   With the portable fencing all set up, we plugged in the charger for a final check.  It clicked twice, and then was dead.  Crap.  We figured maybe we had left it on, and decided to swap the battery.

Knowing we couldn’t fix the fencer right away, we had a moment to run to The Cupboard (Cambridge’s best source for donuts and sandwiches) before heading home to shear the doctor with Phoebe.  Purchases in hand, we returned to the parking lot to find the passenger rear tire nearly flat and hissing hard.  Crap.

The handy thing about our location was that we were 100 yards from a gas station and 100 yards from an Aubuchon Hardware.  So I went to buy a tire patch kit, and Matt rolled the tire to the Free Air device at the gas station.  Forty-five minutes and a few perilous crossings of VT Route 15 later, we were back in business.

Thirty-give minutes back to Williston, and patient Phoebe was ready to help us round up the sheep and to shear The 4th Doctor, two hours later than our initial 11:30 meeting time. Getting the sheep in from pasture was entertaining, insofar as Eleanor and Marianne couldn’t figure out how to walk up an embankment and ran back into the paddock to baa and panic for a while.  I eventually just left them there.

My initial plan to just tie up The Doctor and shear him upright failed, so Matt, Phoebe and I restrained him in various configurations while I sheared his wool off.  The wool is beautiful, but the ram wound up looking a little rag-tag.  I’ll do better next time.  I’m thinking I’ll home-shear the BFLs but pay for the Cormos, since they have much more wool.

We loaded the lambs, and off they went to Cambridge.  We dropped them in the pasture and plugged in the electric fence kit from the sheep at home- the one we knew worked.  Some frantic googling and a few phone-calls later, and we realized that the only farm store that might have a replacement power unit was our favorite place, Guy’s Farm and Yard, all the way back in Williston.  So back to Williston we went, hoping we’d make it before closing.  In we ran, with 15 minutes to pick out a new energizer.

Matt took a half hour to put the fencer back together with the brand new energizer.  He added an extra battery for increased storage on rainy days, which we’ve had without break since!

Some weanlings in the field near where I work, taking it hard, as you can see.

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