Yesterday was a busy fiber day. A neighbor brought over a few sample fleeces from her flock for me to scour. When she dropped the bags, I immediately took a small sample indoors to wash up just for a look at how the fleece might behave.
Louis, our Aussie shepherd, who was around our Shetlands at a very young age, followed closely, curiously sniffing the air. As I ran a pot of water at the sink, he began crying at the door. I followed, letting him out for what I thought was a potty break. While waiting for the dog, I busied myself outdoors setting up the scouring equipment. Then I looked over and found Louis situated beside the bags of raw fiber just outside the garage. Not thinking much of it, I called him in and he immediately whined and paced at the back door.
Assuming he hadn’t finished his doggy business, I took him out again and noticed he ran straight for the fleeces, plopping down beside them and looking quite proud. The sweet pup was guarding his “flock.” Talk about instincts! I finally had to put the fleeces away to manage our loyal shepherd’s sanity. A good dog and good shepherd indeedy.
I’ve been spinning some yarn for my daughter, who loves to knit. And having been separated from the wheel for the better part of a year, it feels good to be back at it. My parents gifted me an old rocking chair that my great grandfather had made long ago. He was so proud of his chair and the work he put into it, from turning each spindle, to the engraving, to the sewing of the cushion (yes, my great grandfather was the seamstress in our family).
The thing about the chair is that it sits low, which I find quite comfortable. Moreover, it’s at exactly the right elevation for the wheel, making it ideal for long hours spinning. And it’s something to think about- the process of making a chair and how similar that is to the process of making yarn; how one cradles the other. That point is not lost on me.
The seed catalogs are piling up and it’s a constant reminder of how in flux we’ll be as of
June. It’s been a long time since I’ve not put in a large seed order, and frankly, I’m feeling a bit antsy about it this season. So, to take my mind off of what I won’t be doing, I’m thinking ahead to the things this extra time will provide in terms of opportunities for learning. An ever-growing, ever-bearing, zone 1-10 list of things to learn while not farming:
Tend to the travelling orchard
Improve spinning technique
Improve fiber processing set-up and technique
Experiment with natural dyes
Learn about medicinal herbs
Practice grafting techniques
Volunteer at school or public garden
Help a fellow farmer with farm chores, butchering, shearing, etc.
Learn old-fashioned candy-making
Focus on food preservation techniques:
Take a class in business planning for the fiber mill
Maybe, just maybe, learn a new knitting skill
Explore niche or value added markets
Take a botany class
Spend some time with growers using methods outside of your own, including conventional, biodynamic, and other permaculture or organic farmers and gardeners
Cut up seed catalogs to make art with the kids
Cut up seed catalogs to do some companion planting planning
Re-read Edible Forest Gardens
The list continues to grow and hope blooms eternal, so… suggestions are always welcome and may spring shine warm sunlight upon your gardens!
I just returned from another trip out to New York, this time to explore the Schoharie valley and Delaware County. This trip, thanks to the farmers who housed me, really invigorated me. I think I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from farming, despite the daily regimen because we’re currently partially uprooted. Being on a farm started by a woman and witnessing the incredible foundation she has built, along with the connectivity she fosters with neighboring farms, has really inspired me not to “begin again,” but to continue with this mission forward to build a farm and fiber business.
The farm where I stayed (had to make this trip out alone so Chris could tend to the alpacas), is technically East Branch Farm, but most of the locals know it as Straight Out of the Ground, a beautiful property with a goddess of a guernsey cow, who is the apple of Farmer Madalyn’s eye, for sure. And it’s easy to see why. Look at that adorable face!
In addition to farming, Madalyn also co-produces a radio show called the Farm Hour Radio.
The mountains are nothing short of magical. The roadways and farmland trace their contours, and in the mornings, mist hovers over the valleys, leading me to look for hobbits and unicorns as much as farmland.
Madalyn connected us with some good folks and resources for farmers and reinforced the awareness that New York is a good state for agriculture. Beneath every county sign I passed, the words “Right to Farm” appeared prominently. The soil in the valleys appears good and the prospect of a fiber mill feels welcomed.
Moreover, the locals are fiercely loyal to their agricultural roots and at one stop, in a village where we had been told we could not house our alpacas, a local business owner stormed down to the local village office and demanded to see the ordinance. When the village couldn’t provide any specific wording ruling against alpacas, she called me and said, “You can have your livestock here.” Can’t help but love these folks.
I would like to say we have figured this whole thing out, but after an inspection revealed some significant issues on the house we were under contract to buy, we are once again looking for the farm. However, despite this setback, I feel more confident than ever that we’ll find the right place, because more significant than where we will land is that feeling of where we belong. And it’s there, among the mountains and the hard-working farmers of the Schoharie, where we feel most at home. Looking forward to calling this place home.
Last trip out, we traversed Sharon Springs, where an inspiring couple revitalized a farm into an enterprising business. Madalyn told us it’s not only a thriving business, but they even had a television show. Check it out below. Also, living in the region, a woman I look forward to meeting at some point in the near future, Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. And so much more I would like to share, save for the time to write it all down…
If you don’t know them already, the Beekman Boys are fabulous.
We are a family of six. That translates to two kids per parent. Factor in a dog, cat, and four alpacas, and meal planning/preparation, and you can see how a day goes by very quickly for our household. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love farming, but this kind of farming is unique for us. We do not live at the property and without electricity and running water, we have to make daily trips hauling materials in during the winter months over-top heavy snowfall and no matter the weather, and as often as two to three times daily.
Water is carried in three-gallon drums. We fill it at home and carry the water uphill through the snow because there is no way for our car to traverse the drive this time of the year. It’s good cardio, but not half as good as the 50lb bags of pellets or the even heavier dense hay we carry bale by bale.
A hay shortage this year meant we could not stock up as we had done previously, but thankfully we found a really good supplier just 12 miles from the farm. Today, we’ll haul in another load, bale by bale, through the snow, uphill the whole way. I’m just grateful it’s good grass hay (harder to find with such high demand for alfalfa mixed bales in our area).
Yesterday, was a straw day. We stack two bales on the Prius roof once a week for bedding. The straw is light and not as difficult to maneuver, but takes time, like anything, when traversing heavy snow.
The daily tasks at the farm include the removal of the evening dung-pile (it’s amazing what an alpaca bottom can produce in a day), watering of the animals, a daily ration of pellets (a treat and supplement), hay feed, and feeding the cat, who has taken up residence with the alpacas. They form a harmonious grouping. Cats and alpacas pair well together and the cat keeps the mice away from the feed and I often find the cat and the alpacas nestled together in the deep straw bedding.
Next comes the dumping of the collected dung outside of the barn, then a walk around the perimeter to ensure the fence is in good order. Usually a few nuzzles and snuggles are exchanged and that concludes the first round.
Another aspect of having alpacas is the grooming. We do not groom their fiber, but we do keep their nails clipped, which is not a very pleasant process for the farmer, unaccustomed to wrestling a 200-lb animal during its routine foot-care.
This summer, I learned to administer both IM and SQ injections for vitamins and vaccines. Also not my favorite task, but part of the routine care of the animals. There’s the shearing, but that’s a biennial event for Suris, and thankfully one we can hire out (though we successfully sheared two on our own – I may be slightly stretching the use of the word “successful” in this instance).
Farming is not for the faint of heart. And farming in this fashion is reminiscent of something older. At times I am working in complete darkness, by feel, and other times I find myself breathing standing before the large looming barn with the feeling time has stopped in this place altogether. It’s a peaceful feeling and I am grateful this special place has been preserved for many future generations to experience and enjoy.
We often think of plants as singular entities, selected for those virtuous traits we admire about them, like beauty or flavor. In the permaculture garden or any ecological design, we need to think of the relationship between plants (and/or other elements), not the individual elements.
You know that saying, it takes a village to raise a child? The same is true in the garden space. Each neighboring plant plays a role in the development or detriment of the neighboring plant. Understanding how these plants function can help you place them in roles benefiting their neighbors.
It can be as simple as inter-planting strawberries with carrots (the two exchange essential micro-nutrients and never compete for macro-nutrients, sunlight, or water at the same time/depth) or as complex as introducing animals and additional plants into the scene to maximize yields and resources, while reducing inputs.
Determining those elements which may be stacked or overlapped to increase efficiency can be time-consuming at the start, but will create far smaller feed-back loops in the long run allowing for better management of a farm or outside project.
The chickens on our farm quickly adapted to life within the confines of the alpaca enclosure at night, because predators craving chickens had no interest in going to battle with a fully grown and enraged alpaca. The alpacas benefit by having natural pest control in the barn. Both animals create a rich manure which can be applied to neighboring garden beds. And egg collection now happens as I take care of alpaca chores in the barn (they’ve chosen to lay behind the barn door, the safest place in the barn).
We must also nurture our relationships withing the larger community. The perfect pairing may be great for wine or marriage, but there are other important relationships we must foster for the sake of maintaining our own sanity in the larger picture. Not only are these relationships important in helping us stay grounded, focused, and supported, but we can hopefully pass along some of the information that has been lost to time in the last 50 or more years, while gleaning other tidbits from those we know and love.
In the end, nature teaches us to surround ourselves with those elements that play an essential role in supporting and nurturing us. It also highlights the need for us to take a kinder approach to how we treat others, whether it be our neighbor or the land. I’ve often wondered what is whispered when the wind stirs the high canopies of trees. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s these two words repeated: “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”
"In healing, we teach others; and in teaching, we heal."