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Winter Chores

We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year.  The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting.  The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.IMG_20191226_105829

Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn.  The ewes are eager to see me.  They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again.  We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up.  With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.

Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn.  In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep.  Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial.  Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving.  I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried.  I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.

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In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples.  They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family.  It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep.  If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it.  Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans.  The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other.  We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins.  Frustrating.

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Review: “Fibershed” by Rebecca Burgess

I just finished reading Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists and Makers for a New Fiber Economy.  Reading this book was like reading a book I wish I had written – I am completely on board with the author’s concerns about our current clothing system and vision for a new one.  I hope this book increases awareness of the value of local fibercraft.

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Burgess begins the book by outlining the environmental and ethical morass that is current Fast Fashion.  She outlines all of the pain and environmental destruction inherent in petroleum-derived fashion, including pollution from manufacture, dyeing and weaving/sewing of clothes.  She also notes emerging evidence showing the polluting properties of microfibers.  She tackles the environmental and ethical concerns about conventional cotton production and sheep production, including non-point pollution of fresh water as well as land use concerns.  I had not considered just how large the environmental footprint of clothing really is because I am not an active shopper, but she rightly points out that clothing manufacture is a huge sector of the global economy. No person or environment is untouched by the effects of our economic choices.

Her solution to the issues of our current wasteful and destructive clothing habit is simple enough to envision, but a challenge to implement.  She believes, and I agree, that we should go “localvore” with clothing as we should with food.  De-globalizing clothing economies and changing our habits around clothing would drastically slow the consumption of resources currently deployed to making flimsy garments meant only to last for a month or two.  It would also provide revitalizing economic opportunity in rural areas.

Her critique of the increasing rate of “planned obsolescence” in clothing really hit home for me.  I have struggled with this myself – I want to buy sturdy, comfortable jeans to work in, but in women’s clothing, jeans have become so flimsy that it’s hard to find a pair that will last me a year.  Men’s clothing is a little sturdier, but it doesn’t fit me at all and I feel like I shouldn’t have to compromise on fit to get properly dressed.  It’s even more of a struggle for me lately because since my surgeries, I can no longer tolerate a tight waistband across my tender pelvis and stomach.  That rules out a lot of brands of work pants.

The segment of the book that spoke to me most was (of course!) the segment on the potential for a California wool renaissance that would create a market for local raw wool, mills to spin and weave or knit it, and manufacturers to create top-quality finished garments.  I am totally on board with this vision.  Frustratingly, the only way this would really work would be if the environmental costs of globalized manufacture weren’t hidden from consumers or charged to third-world countries for clean up of environmental damage.   If the lifecycle price of carbon better matched the price at the pump, local clothing would be instantly competitive.

I am furthermore grateful for all of the groundbreaking lifecycle analysis that Burgess has done looking at local fiber’s carbon sequestration potential.  We should all wear wool with pride, knowing that every stitch of wool that replaces something made of petrochemicals is a little gift to our climate.   I only hope that we will rectify the artificial cheapness of imported fashion and imported food before it’s too late – I can safely assume that Burgess wishes very much for the same.  We furthermore agree that lab meat and lab fibers are a false hope which only serve to further centralize production while still hiding their carbon and ethical costs.

My critique of the book is twofold.  While the author’s citation of statistics and examples is commendable and thorough, so many are cited that it sometimes detracts from the narrative of the book.  The many credits she gives to people she visited and talked to while exploring her fibershed causes a similar narrative issue.  I appreciate that she wants to give producers their due, but I admit I found it distracting.  Also distracting was the organization of the book, which I would describe as distinctly “Californian-informal”.  Perhaps because I tend to favor textbooks, I struggled to follow the occasionally-meandering threads in this book.  I also wish she had more thoroughly examined the impacts of natural dyes.  It is my understanding that when mordant is added, many natural dyes are as polluting as synthetics or are worse.

Nevertheless, I feel that this is an important book for anyone who wants to explore the implications of their clothing choices.  She has groundbreaking information about new techniques for growing clothing crops more sustainably and with fewer labor rights infractions.  The book is full of striking illustrations and inspiring side-notations about farms and operations she has visited.  I would recommend it as the fiber-world equivalent to Omnivore’s Dilemma and other groundbreaking works endeavoring to spark change in our systems.

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UnGlamorous

This is the unglamorous time of year.  The two big Sheep and Wool festivals we do are over, and it’s time to get back to routine farmwork,

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All but the most stubborn leaves have blown off the trees and hit the ground.  Frost has ceased the growth of the grass, so all grazing now is merely a victory-lap of somewhat palatable but less-nutritious grass.  Even breeding season has abated – the rams have settled most of the ewes for March lambs, as best I can tell.  Unlike goats, rams woo ewes quietly and subtly.  They grumble gently and nudge ewes while sniffing to determine who might be in heat.

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One major job awaiting me was the ram barn.  We clean the bedded manure pack out of the main barn with a tractor, but because the rams live in a converted horse stall, removing their bedding is a hand-shoveling job.  If we bedded them with shavings, shoveling would be easy, but we mostly bed them with waste hay.   Waste hay plus manure creates a substance that I term “Crap-thatch”.  Crapthatch is challenging to shovel because the long strands of hay do not want to disengage, while the moisture in the pack makes every scoop you can move very heavy.

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Keep on scoopin’!

It took three long days to complete the shoveling job.  We added most of the manure to the manure pile, but we brought one down to the village of Albany to share with some folks who let us rent their land for hay.  Matt deposited the scoop of poop straight on their garden for use next year.

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At least we have a nice stack of hay bales to see us through until spring.  It’s hard not to get anxious about my hay math – it’s expensive to be 20 bales short in April!  That said, I think we are in the clear.

 

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Our Bountiful Wild Harvest

At Cloverworks Farm, we raise lamb as an enterprise plus chicken and ducks for our own use.  We also have some wild foods on the farm – you may recall that a few months ago, we were hastily picking a variety of berries.  Now is the harvest time for our apples, crabapples and rosehips.

We are overrun with apples this year.  In all seriousness, we have literal tons on the trees, and they are more than I can physically pick or utilize.  We are considering getting some clean tarps and gathering all we can to bring to local cideries.   We considered cider presses, but I don’t think we can justify adding another significant enterprise to our farm at a time of year when we are already fraying at the edges with hay and breeding season planning.

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We have had an embarrassment of apples this year.  Last year was a poor year for apples, but this year has made up for it and then some.  We have thousands of apples, some small and scrawny, other juicy and snackable.  It feels a shame that I can’t pick every one – I hate to think of them going to waste in any way, since I imagine we even have more than the wildlife can handle.

We have one particular tree that is clearly not a wild field-apple.  It has a dwarf habit, an identifiable graft, and the juiciest, best apples in the whole place.  I feel a special connection to this tree, so I carefully protect it from the sheep.  This year, it has already given at least five bushels of apples, while more apples await on the top.

I feel guilt for the apples that have hit the ground.  Wasting a food resource is anathema to me.  Feeding apples to livestock feels fine, but leaving them to rot on the ground feels so painfully wasteful, but yet I cannot physically cope with the tonnage of apples here.  That said, I have made and frozen several pies, I have donated apples to be made into cider, and I intend to have a little cider made so we can add yeast and enjoy the consequences.

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We also have rose hips on hand.  I juiced these rose hips with crabapples to make another batch of my favorite jelly- crabapple rosehip.  The rosehips lend a floral richness to the pungent crabapples.  Crabapples grow right under our deck.

Not everything I put up in the last week has been my own – I traded apples for these tomatoes, which proved to be absolutely wonderful in flavor.  Just a little tomato puree in the freezer to help beat the winter blues later on.

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Our Chef Dinner

Yesterday got a little hectic, I won’t pretend otherwise.

At the farmer’s market, a family of five came by and expressed interest in joining us for our Chef Dinner.  I was feeling prepared for our small contingent, but almost doubling the guest list meant we needed to kick into high gear.  I was so excited by the prospect of our new guests that I went to another market vendor and commissioned some bouquets.  When Peggy from Newfield Herb Farm came by with her flowers, she spontaneously offered to run to the local nursery to pick up some chrysanthemums for me!  She kindly brought me back three ‘mums about 45 minutes later.

Nadav and Bru arrived around 3:45 to set up.  I had gathered all of my most quaint and charming items, but I am not really much of a decorator.  Bru swiftly set up my mason jars, straw bales, lamb fleece and photos to create more ambiance than I have ever seen in any other hastily-tidied carport.

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The apples and the leaves strewn artfully about was 100% Bru.  It was really a treat to get to chat a little and get to know Nadav and Bru while we worked to get this set up.  There’s something magical in taking ordinary objects and arranging them artfully so they lend gravitas.

Soon after the table was set, we received an unfortunate phone call.  The family of 5 was having a family emergency and would not be attending.  We appreciated their call but it was hard not to feel a little disappointed.

Our joy was renewed, however, when our first guests arrived.  Dan and Marda have been friends ever since I worked at Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield.  They purchased and refurbished the drafty old farmhouse I lived in during those years into a house with the same charm as the old place, but with modern conveniences and full insulation.  They are kind and generous people, so getting to show them around my sheep farm dream, realized, was a real privilege.   Dan and Marda raise bees, harvest apples and boil maple syrup, among other endeavors.

Then Matt and Reeni arrived.  They are friends of Matt’s from before he and I knew each other.  Matt and Reeni also appreciate the journey Matt and I have taken in our relationship and in creating this farm as it stands today.   Matt works in management at a large food co-op in Chittenden County, so he has perspective on the other side of food-dom.  Reeni’s family is Egyptian, so we got to discussing her family lamb recipes with Nadav, who is Israeli-American.  Reeni is interested in writing a recipe book that we can offer alongside the lamb we sell.  She would get paid per-book, and we would have recipes at-hand to help people get the most out of their lamb orders.

Seeing our friends was wonderful, but I imagine you’d like to hear about the food:

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Our first course was braised lamb riblets over a fall salsa with a currant glaze.  I am completely in awe of how Nadav made the riblets so tender, yet crisp.  I usually get one or the other.   The salsa, entirely sourced within 10 miles of the farm, provided a sharp, tangy contrast to the lamb.

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Our salad course provided another flavor and texture contrast with three layers of vegetables.  On the top, a variety of the freshest local tomatoes.  In the middle, lightly wilted greens with a subtle dressing.  On the bottom, local brussels sprouts over discs of beet and carrot.  The carrot was braised in beet juice, creating a delicious and original flavor and texture.   The sprouts were sauteed in lamb sausage fat and apple cider, which eliminated the bitter undertones and left a pure brassica bliss.  On top, crumbled lamb sausage and goat cheese.  Delicious!

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The main course was Nadav’s most creative venture yet.  We were advised to play with our food, and handed a little glass of opaque pinkish-orange juice.  We learned that the juice was raw tomato water.  The tender, thin, ravioli revealed tomato puree inside.  Underneath was a subtly-seasoned pulled lamb.  So we mixed our ravioli and lamb while drizzing tomato juice on top.

You know that tangy, sour flavor you get from cooked tomatoes?  That canned flavor?  Imagine lamb with tomato sauce where the tomatoes don’t have the slightest hint of that sour, metallic, “cooked” flavor.  Just pure lamb with pure, fresh, bright tomato.  I didn’t really think that there could be a new way to put lamb with tomato, but Nadav found one and it was amazing.  Real creativity in cuisine is a marvel to behold.

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How to top this series of lamb revelations?  Why not have a generous slice of apple pie with local ice cream on top.  Nadav said that our apples are as good as he’s found.

I am very grateful to Nadav, Bru, Dan, Marda, Matt and Reeni for coming to celebrate our harvest of lamb and apples.  Next time, you should join us!

If you are interested in learning more about Chef Nadav and his farm dinners and private chef services, check out his website: http://chefnadav.com/

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Cloverworks Farm in the Media

If you’ve ever ridden in the car with me, you probably know that I’m a bit of a public radio buff.  I am a huge fan of VPR, and particularly of Brave Little State, which is a podcast about questions about quirky Vermont topics.   Recently, a question I asked was featured on the program!

My question is answered on Brave Little State

Matt and I spent a lot of time driving all around the northeastern part of Vermont on our search for a suitable farm to buy.  We noticed Star Pudding Farm Road in Marshfield more than once, so I wanted to ask about it.  Turns out that the answer brought a tear to my eye because sometimes it feels like my farming efforts are rewarded with dining on wind pudding.

Our other major media effort is a new children’s book about lambs growing up on our farm.  April and May: Two Lambs at Cloverworks Farm tells the charming story of two lamb sisters who explore their surroundings, with educational commentary for adults to enjoy.  The book is appropriate for pre-readers and early readers.  Buy a copy through the link above, or come see us at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market on Saturdays!

In other farm news, Mary Lake came to shear the lambs who aren’t slated for retention yesterday.  We got over 50 pounds of top quality fiber, so I am debating whether to have roving made or whether to hold out for more yarn….what do you think?

 

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On Farm Dinner

Join us on the farm for a dinner celebrating the harvest.  Craftsbury chef Nadav Mille will be preparing a tantalizing menu of foods using lamb from our farm and other local ingredients.  Chef Nadav’s cooking is vibrant with flavor and creativity – I sincerely hope you will consider joining us for this special evening.

If you can’t join us, we have plenty to lamb for sale!

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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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A Trip to the Museum

If you know me in real life, you’re probably aware that I am pretty nerdy.  So a day trip to a local historical society and museum was just the thing to share with Matt and my mom.  We decided to check out Old Stone House Day at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, VT.

Much of the grounds was given over to a farmer’s market, pie auction and activities for children.  We rapidly found our way to the historical agricultural tools barn, where we looked at an old sheep-powered treatmill for small tasks like churning butter or running other simple devices.  We learned that there were once many more sheep in Orleans County – hard to imagine now, as there are only a few large sheep farms in this area.

Here are some pictures from our day at the museum that I found particularly compelling:

This cutie was my first stop, for obvious reasons.  Not sure if I petted Danny or Mr. Wrinkles, but these two chill guys were taking it easy under a shade tree.  Touching their wool, I am brought straight back to why I abandoned my efforts to raise finewool sheep in Vermont.  They both had damage to the wool on their backs from our humid climate.

 

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This picture speaks for itself regarding changes to the farming economy in Vermont.  Whether you support conventional dairy farming or not, the farming infrastructure that comes with it is vital to the success of all of the small farms in the state.  We lost another 10% of our dairy farms in 2018 due to milk prices again lingering below the cost of production.

For those who care about this particular opinion, Ben & Jerry’s was MUCH better ice cream before Unilever bought them.  It hurts to see the chain of consolidation moving on up.  Jasper Hill and Vermont Creamery (dealing in goat’s milk, owned by Land’O’Lakes) are doing the same thing with the cheese market.

Here is the display on wool from the museum.  Under the sign, there was a picture of a UK-style Border Leicester.

 

 

Of note to longtime readers – if you recall two years ago when we were hunting for a home to buy to use as a farm, we almost bought a property in Brownington, only a mile or so from the museum.  We drove by the home we had considered buying, only to find the 1810-era farmhouse torn down and replaced with a modern home and a horse barn for pleasure-horses.  Such a loss, though small in the grand scheme, is nevertheless a blow to valuable agricultural land and to preservation of historic homes.   It was sad to see.

 

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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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