Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Sequel: Funny Farm Time

Did I mention setting the alarm for 5:00 a.m. before going to bed last night, in order to have the sheep to Meriden by 6:00?

I awoke about 6:20. God, using the electronic brain of my cell phone as a tool, decided that I a) needed more sleep (perfectly true, but NOT what I'd planned) and b) ought to do a few chores before going to Meriden (they could easily have waited). The locked-up face of the cell phone read something like 3:17 a.m.

Well, nothing to be done about that. Early arrival ensures that the sheep will be processed first instead of last (relative to the day's lot of hogs), and reduces my time spent waiting for hides to bring back to the farm. Since I missed being first, I'll have to be last--mid-morning at the earliest. I called the processing plant. Then I did normal morning stuff--breakfast and chores. Checked e-mail.

A friend had previously expressed an interest in purchasing one of these 4 ewes as breeding stock, but I hadn't heard anything by the time I loaded them. There in my morning e-mail was a confirmation of his intent to purchase Bridget. So there was plenty of time to re-sort sheep and re-load the trailer.

Fortuneately, when we wormed sheep a week ago, I was undecided which would be going to the processing plant, so I left several extra culls untreated. Ivomec Sheep Drench has an 11-day slaughter withdrawal period, and I usually double that to be on the safe side even though apparently ivermectin is used for parasites in humans.

So I back up the trailer to the chute again. Run the barn flock into one paddock, run the back flock up to the barn, grab the sopping wet (did I mention it rained just a little bit while I was sleeping?) Candy and throw her into the ramp holding pen. Candy hugs the fence by her flock. I run the back flock back to their pen. This leaves Candy alone in the holding pen. "Ack! I'm alone!" thinks Candy. The nearest sheep are the ones in the trailer, so suddenly she decides to charge up the ramp. I open the door and she enters the trailer--easiest I've ever gotten one up the ramp. Collar Bridget and push her out the trailer gate--she's baffled, but nothing the lush grass of the back yard won't cure.

Pull trailer into driveway. Double check all gate latches. The way yesterday went, I'm hypervigilant...Is there another shoe? Will it fall? Check hitch, check lights...good to go. I get down the street a block and stop on the level pavement to check that the tires look OK this morning (not wanting to remove all 6 valve stem caps AGAIN after last night). Everything looks great. Feels great. Sounds great. Off we go, a leisurely trip with no time pressure. Nice day, not raining but cloudy and cooler than yesterday.

Back the trailer up to the holding pen at the plant. Get out to open tailgate and check position.

Front driver tire is flat. FLAT. Not just low on air. As flat as the truck was dead yesterday.

Unload sheep--wet, confused, stubborn sheep. The humans prevail by being a bit less confused, and a bit more stubborn, than the sheep.The scripture about "as quietly as lambs being led to the slaughter" was written before hogs, rubber slaughterhouse aprons and concrete loading docks were invented. Well, maybe not before hogs were invented, but those biblical sheep lived in a relatively hog-free culture.

While I'm waiting for hides, I'll just pop out and change the flat tire, right? I have the heavy-duty jack, the tire iron, the, did I air the spare last night? Noooooo.... OK, first step is break loose the lug nuts while the rim is sitting there on the ground. Next step is try a couple more lug nuts. OK, stand on lug wrench. Stand and JUMP on lug wrench? 130 lbs. wringing wet is not getting the job done

Service of processing plant staff is offered, "when they're at a stopping point." It could be a while, and the staff in question outweighs me mostly by gender and not by pounds. I opt to call in the pros.

Got phone number for local tire dealer. Oh, right--no cell phone reception here. Use plant phone to call dealer. No road service. Call another local automotive place; they'll be right out.

It's drizzling. I wait under the eaves of the building, feeling like I'm wearing a sign saying "Helpless woman." The drizzle stops when the mechanic arrives.

A picture of masculine efficiency, the mechanic pops a 1/2" drive air wrench socket on a good, long cheater bar, applies it to the lug nut, and muscles into it. The socket splits from one end to the other!

I secretly rejoice that God has reassured me that I am NOT a wimp after all. My failure to change the tire by myself was about previous torque being too great, not my inability to apply adequate torque...neither a shortcoming of size nor of gender.

Mechanic goes back to shop for another socket, gets things broken loose, airs up spare, puts it on, everything's good. He agrees that buying tires from a dealer where I live makes sense, in terms of future service if needed, so I'll drive home without a spare.

I'm even more hypervigilant, and stop for another tire check when the ride seems a bit rough.

I DO make it home without anything more happening! But...

The distressed cry of a young lamb comes from the fallow garden area where I'm flash grazing some of the sheep. They've grazed this area several times already this year, without incident, even though a stack of tomato cages is stored there.

But TODAY, there is a lamb in a cage. Not the lowest level, but the next level up, the bottom of the cage at belly level for the little beast, hooves barely touching the ground. To get in there--as far as it could go, head through the perimeter fence at the other end--it had to have lifted each leg painstakingly over each wire of the cage. This kid went to a lot of effort to get where it was....

The only solution I can see is restacking the cages until I can pick up the lamb's cage with the lamb in it. I was half right....

After untangling and restacking about 15 cages one at a time, the lamb decides it can do a U-turn inside the cage and walk out! I note the lamb's ear tag number to ensure that this gene pool dies out. Know why Border Collies are so eager to please? They are so smart we would want to murder them if they didn't care what we thought. Know why sheep are "so stupid"? Because we shepherds tend eat the troublemakers!

Next item of business is trimming and salting the sheep hides. That means dealing with the ones from the last slaughter date, awaiting a shipping box in the basement.

The salted underside of the "dried" hides has drawn enough moisture from the air that they are too wet to pack. I devise a hanging rack for them to finish drying--why didn't I think of this years ago? Finally the new ones are arrayed in salty splendor on the basement floor. Probably a good thing I don't have a housemate right now!

I get a last-minute appointment with the chiropractor to get my ribs put back in place after really torquing them in the attempt on the lug nuts.

The trusted proprietor of the feed store (where I stop for mineral on the way to the chiropractor) argues that sheep mineral and goat mineral are the same, when I can plainly read--even without my reading glasses!--that the goat mineral he's trying to sell me contains added copper, which is toxic to sheep.

I stop by a tire store. New "shoes" for my truck cost more than really good new shoes for fact, a set would cost well more than what I paid for the truck.

After all this, I have an hour to rig an electric fence gate to put the back flock of sheep on fresh pasture, before going to a retirement party for a friend. Figured I'd have that job out of the way about 8 hours ago....

It starts pouring rain. I have set a record for working on electric fences in the pouring rain this year. At least there was no thunder and lightening today. I try always to wear rubber boots in times like this.

My Goretex jacket decides not to be waterproof any more.

Does this sound like a fun adventure to you? Then you might be crazy enough to enjoy being a shepherd. If you still think you want sheep, tell you what. Pay me a salary to keep them for you, you can visit them anytime, and you can keep your sanity. I've already lost mine...but at least I still have my serenity--another one of those small miracles.

By another small miracle, I've been laughing all day. (OK, headshaking does go along with the laughter.) On days like this, "funny farm" makes more sense than ever before.

This is what I get for stepping back and letting God manage the farm. In some ways, it works far better than I could ever do on my own (I really couldn't have come up with a better plan for getting my nephew's car from the mechanic's). But seeing God at work in flat tires and missed alarms is NOT for everyone.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In the Dark

Tomorrow four cull ewes are going to Bowser Meat Processing to become summer sausage.

Hitch the trailer, load the sheep, off we go...simple, right?


The truck DIED, entirely dead, about an hour and a half before I had to be at work today. At the Post Office. Through a small miracle, the tow truck came, hitched it in double-quick time, got it to the mechanic's where my nephew's car was waiting to be picked up, and I got home in time to finish chores and be at work on time in my nephew's car.

Through another small miracle, my mechanic (who is WONDERFUL and no, he doesn't want any more customers) was able to fit the truck into his busy schedule and fix it quite reasonably. I suspected I'd be putting a new battery in it for next winter, but that wasn't on today's "to-do" list.

So then my nephew's car wouldn't start after I got off work at 8:30 p.m. A co-worker gave me a ride to the mechanic's shop so I could pick up the truck. I'll deal with the car tomorrow.

By the time I get home it's getting pretty dark. I hitch the trailer (which, single-handed, requires extreme patience--back a little, get out and check position, get back in, adjust position, repeat) by headlamp. I've learned to stand a piece of plastic pipe next to the trailer hitch so that I can see where it is--helps a LOT.

The hitch never settles properly on the ball without rocking the trailer back and forth a few times with the truck. Finally, it's in place. I lock it down, rig safety chains, and connect the lights. This is all so much smoother than the time I was out in the snow rewiring the trailer hitch the night before a sheep delivery...progress, one step at a time. Isn't it nice when trailer lights work like they're supposed to? Oops, one last step--remove chocks from trailer tires.

But before loading the sheep, I need to take the trailer down to the corner gas station and air the tires. The price of air has tripled!!!! since the last load of sheep; I don't have enough quarters so I hike across the l-o-o-o-n-g parking lot to the gas station to trade 2 dimes and a nickle for the quarter that the machine requires.

Then back home, pull into the back yard, and put the trailer exactly where I had it stored before, in order to turn the rig around to back into the loading chute...oh, I mean UP to.....

But not so fast. Go re-read "The Speed of Light", OK? The grapevine-infested tree branches near the loading chute have grown so much, and their weight has pulled them down so much, that the trailer will no longer force its way through/under them.

At least the trailer makes an OK work platform. Get the loppers, climb onto the open tailgate, lop branches as high as I can. Remove tree branch from top of head. Retrieve headlamp from tree branch on ground. Jump down, drag branches out of the path of the a spot out of the way at the moment, but one that I need to mow soon so will have to move them before that can happen.

NOW it's time to back up to the chute. That's the easy part...probably because it's the most essential and expected. The rest of this operation (tires with slow leaks, low-hanging branches, etc.), mostly "shouldn't be" (at least I know what the problems are, and am slowly working towards lasting solution like stock racks for the truck bed). Sometimes it takes a few tries, but hanging my headlamp on the ramp gate is a brilliant idea--I can see exactly where I need to--BUMP--be, except depth perception is "iffy". Actually, I manage (another small miracle) to push the ramp back into its proper position, after the sheep have gradually worked it out a bit from the loading pen.

Ah, minor details.... The sheep aren't IN the loading pen yet, and I've just put the truck and trailer smack in their usual path to the barn. There is a narrow, dark passage on the back side of the truck where they can fit through...but will they? Toss behind them, and a bucket of grain in front of them, convince them that it's in their best interest, at least for the moment.

A few minutes later, they are all marching up the ramp. I shut the trailer gate, pull forward, put in a bucket of water. They'll rest there tonight, and we're ready to head to Meriden about 5:15 tomorrow. With any luck I'll remember to drop by the feed store on the way back, for mineral

Never a dull moment around here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Refined Mowing

After years of relying on friends, neighbor kids, the scythe, etc. to mow the lanes and lawn at the farm, I finally bought my first power mower last year, and learned to run a power mower for the first time. (Heartfelt thanks to long-time farm friend M. W. for encouraging me in this milestone step, and training me and an apprentice in safe operation and basic maintenance.)

This decision was part of my focus on being more self-supporting--being able to do necessary tasks myself if need be, rather than being left high and dry if someone else doesn't come through. It IS in conflict with my principle of not using internal combustion engines on the farm...but hey, progress not perfection! While I'm working off the farm full-time, there WILL be a lot of compromises; I've accepted that.

This year I've learned some things I wish I'd known when this mower was first purchased. I use the mower differently than the average lawn-owner, for one thing--I often mow because I want the clippings to feed the sheep or chickens, than because I want the lawn to look nice (though I DO like it to look nice). This means the grass catcher--unused by the mower's previous owner--is a vital part of the system.

Unfortuneately, this mower has a really inconvenient catcher, with a long, easily-clogged neck out to the side, where it runs into posts and other things. I have to stop very frequently in tall grass to unclog the neck of the catcher. Plust the catcher itself doesn't come off easily, other than the neck's attachment to the deck, and it's really awkward to dump the floppy thing over a tall chain link fence to the chickens.

While driving the bus, I watch the pros. Those who pick up clippings have mowers with easy-on, easy-off boxes on the back of the mower where they are out of the way. If I ever replace this one with another power mower, I'll look for one of those.

I also mow in small sessions, just as much as the animals can eat at the time. Putting the mower in a shed each time, and getting it out again, would waste a lot of time and energy. So I tend to leave the mower sitting where I finish mowing, ready to mow the next swath the next day.

For a long time, the mower has been stored under a large, cumbersome half of a plastic 55 gallon drum. So when I was done mowing, I had to go fetch the drum to cover the mower. And I hung the safety equipment on the handle of the mower--which meant mowing with wet hearing protectors sometimes. UV quickly deteriorates most plastics, so I really didn't like leaving my brand new, fairly expensive, and very comfortable hearing protectors out in the sun. But if I put them in the shed, I had to go fetch them when I decided to mow...extra steps, wasted time.

The other day, I had a brainstorm that really makes the whole process more efficient.

The light-weight plastic tub nicely covers the engine, with the safety equipment underneath on top of the engine, out of the weather.

Then it tips over and rests on the back of the deck and a bungee cord across the lawnmower handle, and forms a container to scoop clippings into. It's easily removed from the mower, carried to a pen, and dumped over the fence. And it's even more easily replaced.

When I'm done, everything is safely stowed in a few seconds.
Note that as soon as the tub is in place, Luna moves in, ready to try to herd the mower as soon as it is under way. I strongly discourage this dangerous sport, by firm commands or by a gate when my patience starts to ebb....

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Word of God

It's Sunday, so scriptural reflections seem appropriate...esp. since I did my prayer in the garden this morning instead of seeking out a human fellowship.

Some people refer to the Bible as "the Word of God". There's a logical inconsistency here, for me. Because John--in the Bible!--refers to the Word of God as something FAR more than holy scripture. This is not to minimize the centrality of the Bible to my understanding of God, but to place it in what for me is its proper perspective, as one of many manifestations of the Word of God. One entry in the Wikipedia that is the entirety of God's Word, subject to change without notice, somehow at the same time comprehensive and incomplete. It contains everything--yet it is infinite.

John 1:1--"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." Um, that was BEFORE God made Adam with the opposable thumbs to hold a pencil to transcribe the Old Testament.....

John 1:14--"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." Written words are alive to me, and books, including the Bible, have certainly dwelled among me all my life (or vice versa) but I can hardly call them "flesh."

"Flesh", to me connotes something alive, changing, either growing or decaying which is really just a different dimension of growth, the transubstantiation of one life form into others.

A year and a half ago, early November found me abiding for awhile in a lovely cabin in the woods at Cedars of Peace, the retreat center at the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Kentucky (; that's my cabin in the third photo!). Every morning, I ate my breakfast in the armchair in front of the picture window overlooking the ravine. A family of deer--evidently a doe and two nearly-grown fawns--ate their breakfast on the other side of the window. It was interesting to watch their interactions with one another, their little motions of browsing, chewing cud, listening. I understood much of their "body language" from my long intimacy with sheep, who speak a different dialect of the same "ruminant prey animal" language.

Suddenly one morning, watching them and reflecting on the secrets that their language of gestures was sharing with me, I understood the world around me in a whole new way: THIS is the Word of God--ALL of this, every created thing around us. God is still speaking, daily, moment by moment, words from a dictionary that Adam helped transcribe by naming the animals (Linnaeus pitched in but never got the publicity that Adam did--too bad!).

God speaks to me a slug, a blade of grass, a lamb with its head stuck in the fence, a joyful Border Collie with a stick to throw, a breeze on a hot day, a star that I know is behind the clouds in the night sky. That is the Word of God, as surely as the Bible is.

The following hymn "wrote itself" on the lovely grand piano in the chapel that evening. (By and by, hopefully I will figure out if there is a way to include sound "pictures" on this blog as well as the digital photos.)

Open your eyes and see--
Mystery written here!
Open your ears and hear--
God is speaking here
In the browsing deer:
God has written,
God has spoken,
And the message is "Peace".

Friday, June 22, 2007

Three Birds, One Stone

The norm around here is "killing two birds with one stone," usually in the form of pulling weeds from the garden to feed the sheep or chickens.

This evening's brief targetted weeding session took that to a new level. I used the small serrated hand sickle to cut clumps of smooth bromegrass that was going to seed in the garden. The clumps really need to be meticulously dug, so that every spreading rhizome is removed. But that takes a lot of time and energy. Meanwhile, I'd rather not plant more brome in the garden by allowing it to produce seeds.

Throwing the handfuls of mature brome to the sheep not only feeds the sheep, it allows them to spread the seeds in areas where I WANT brome to grow--in the sheep pen where I threw the grass, or out on pasture if they eat the seed and it passes through them to be deposited on the pasture in little fertilizer pellets. I don't know for certain that grass seeds will pass in this manner, but I do know that feeding clover or alfalfa seed in the animals' grain ration is a time-honored way of overseeding a pasture with legumes.

The sickle is a fairly specialized tool that I don't use often. I bought it to help harvest wheat by hand at a friend's farm, with the idea that I'd grow some of my own grain someday. And I did grow rye grain one year, but harvested that with a home-made bow cradle on the long-handled scythe. The photo shows my "brush blade" Austrian scythe with aluminum snath, the much smaller sickle, and my Felco pruners for size comparison.

The sickle is not actually swung in order to cut. It is used to gently yet efficiently draw a cluster of stalks into my left hand. Then the sickle is held stationary while the left hand pulls the clump of stalks back against the sharp serrated blade, severing them. The handful can then be carefully placed in a tub or basket. Swinging the blade at the hand-held stalks would be far too dangerous. Even when used properly, a leather glove on the left hand is an excellent safety precaution...though for the very limited task of cutting brome heads, I didn't bother to go in search of the gloves.

A new tool on the farm that I'm enjoying very much in the context of hand-weeding or cutting grass seed is the fabric and spiral wire "barrels" that compress for storage. They are light and easy to carry through the garden as I cut or pull weeds.

The down side is having to break a long-standing habit: When rising from the kneeling position I use for hand weeding, or even just skootching myself forward a few feet to the next clump of weeds, I am used to leaning just a little on my usual 5-gallon plastic bucket. I didn't even realize this until I unthinkingly did the same thing with the collapsible fabric barrel--and landed flat on my face as it collapsed under my hand!

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Mid-afternoon today, I wandered down the driveway to the spot where I found the swarm of bees yesterday, just curious whether the stragglers had flown off or were still hanging around. To my surprise, there were a LOT of bees flying around the area.

I moved closer to see if they were gathering on the ground, and saw that they were holed up in the middle of a 4" x 4" vinyl fence post that was laying nearby. They were NOT calm and easy-going like yesterday--one flew over and stung my eyebrow. When I calmly moved away, several followed, and one buzzed after me as far as the house.

I checked back later, and noticed another congregation of bees up in the huge arborvitae tree under which I found yesterday's swarm. Mason and I noticed yesterday that there seems to be a hollow place in the crotch of the tree, about 8 feet off the ground. At first we wondered if the swarm had been displaced from there, but I'd never seen any sign of it being a bee tree (white streaks and wear on the bark below the opening, and bees frequenting the area).

I also noticed a large number of bees flying around the pile of fresh wood chips nearby. Odd. Perhaps they are drawn by sap from the freshly-chipped wood.

I called Mason and reported all this to him. He came out this evening and checked the hive of the swarm from yesterday. They were doing well, the queen was fat and happy and Mason was amazed at the weight of the frames after just one day...these bees have put up more stores overnight than the other hive has in a couple months.

So the swarms by the driveway are not yesterday's swarm moving back to a queen that was left behind. They are not huge swarms like yesterday's. It's hard to know what to do. As night fell, the tree swarm moved closer into the crotch of the tree. Perhaps they will make their home there. If the queen is in tree already, there's not much chance of getting her out. As long as the bees aren't too defensive, a bee tree would be kind of neat to have.

We decided to wait and see what happens in the morning. I notified the neighbor (just as she was about to start mowing on the other side of the fence) and called the tree service that has been using my place as a depository for wood chips when they are working in the area. No sense in anyone else getting stung just because they didn't know the bees were there!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Up a Tree with No Hands

A banner day for wildlife sightings!

This afternoon, I glanced at the big cedar tree by the dog pen, and did a double-take! There was one of "my" 5' black rat snakes, plastered onto the side of the tree! It was fascinating to get a close-up view of the dynamics of their climbing. In the second photo, you can see about 1/3 down from the head how he is flattening part of his side and lighter underbelly, and squeezing it into the slight crack under the bark. Wish I had a video, for this and the bees earlier.
P.S. The Border Collie in the background is Luna, Toss's daughter, who will be 3 in August.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What's the Buzz?

An odd, out of place noise roused me from sleep a bit before I was ready to be done sleeping this morning--the sort of sound one associates with an electrical transformer blowing. In my experience, that sound is often followed, at length, by sirens, which would rouse the dogs to barking. But silence ensued...or at least the relative silence of roosters crowing the sunrise and trains bearing their loads along the banks of the Kansas River nearby. So I drifted off again.

At breakfast, I noticed a police officer measuring down the street at the end of the driveway, so my curiousity was piqued. I could also just make out the top of the cab of a white pickup truck over the board fence that separates my front neighbor's yard from mine, and blocks my view of the street. More curiousity. A fender-bender along North Street, perhaps? The sound could have been a minor automobile collision.

I also noticed that I hadn't gotten down to the end of the driveway yesterday to bring the trash can back to the house...the perfect excuse to go see what was up in the neighborhood. Because my house is set so far back from the road, my interactions with neighbors tend to be talking over our common fences, instead of meeting each other on the street. And in this quaint, old-fashioned neighborhood--like many small towns I've been around--you know that you are being watched whenever you set foot on the street, your presence noted, the subject of discussion (a.k.a. gossip) or at least curiousity. It's easiest for everyone if there is an obvious reason of out-of-the-ordinary behaviour, like me walking down to the end of the driveway without a lawn mower. Just in case nothing was going on.

What a mess! I wandered past the police car, the cable company truck, and down the street to the cluster of neighbors surveying the scene. A semi truck had failed to clear the low-hanging wires over the road. The integrity of the electrical supply wires had pulled a corner of one neighbor's house off, where the service went into his house! A spaghetti tangle of phone wires, cable wires, guy wires, and electrical wires gleamed in the morning sun over the street, while utility poles stood askew nearby.

Much head shaking. No phone service for several neighbors--well, many of us have cell phones anyhow. No cable TV--some people's first hint that something was wrong was not being able to view their morning news. Worst, no electricity for the elderly couple whose roof was damaged. But they'll manage OK. At least it's not storm damage affecting a widespread area; the utility companies can get right on it.

Walking back from the street with my trash can, I noticed the morning sun highlighting a number of low-flying insects on the side of the driveway. From the way they were orbiting a particular area, I wondered if there were a dead mole or something atracting flies. Or was the nearby pile of wood chips (for mulch)going through a decomposition process that was attracting some type of beetle to lay eggs? I walked over to discover a natural phenomenon I've long heard about, but never seen: a swarm of honeybees. Rather than being on a branch, they formed a solid, writhing blanket on the ground, bending down and entirely obscuring several small clumps of orchard grass.

Seeing the swarm in the gentle morning sun, on the rain-washed ground, next to the vine covered with green grapes, brought a smile to my face from somewhere deep within. "Welcome, bees!" I said. "Make yourselves at home!" I know that wild bee populations are struggling to survive a wide range of ills these days: fungus, bacterial diseases, parasitic mites, wax moths, and of course the mysterious Colony Collapse Syndrome. This swarm has, whatever their reason for displacement, had the good fortune to land in a place of welcome and relative safety. They might have been met with hysterics, or even Raid, elsewhere. The wood chips nearby are partly from a pear tree that neighbors had cut down "because they had children, and the flowers might attract bees that might sting the children." Later, when I told friends that I'd bound a swarm of bees, they both shuddered and looked terrified on my behalf--a response that both puzzled and amused me, but brought home to me that I really do live in a different world with different values than many of my "town friends".

I called Mason, who keeps his bees at Pinwheel Farm, and he was able to come right over. With a whisk broom and dust pan, he gently scooped up bees and put them in a hive he had brought. It was hard to disentangle the mass of bees from the grass, leaves, and twigs on the ground, but he was slow and patient.

I squatted nearby, taking pictures in the beautiful morning sun. I crept closer and closer, my fascination with the dynamics of the mass of insects gradually erasing my worries about being stung. It helped that Mason was right there in the midst of them, in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, pushing them into a dust pan, and the bees weren't attacking him. One accidentally bumped into me during the half hour of watching them, but I didn't get stung though they were flying all around me. It reminded me of the bat that buzzed past me several times yesterday evening. They know where they're going, and don't want to bump into anything, so we all want the same thing. All I need to do is be slow so that they can use their amazing spatial perception and flight abilities to avoid me without accident.

After several scoops of bees had been dumped into the open top of the hive, I noticed that the side of the swarm nearest me took on a different appearance in its texture and motion. On closer examination, the bees nearest the hive were pointing towards the hive. More than that--they were moving towards the hive, walking over the ground and any companions that stood in their way. Mason began sweeping the bees toward the hive rather than scooping them up.

After most the bees were in the hive, Mason slowly put the rest of the frames in the hive. Then he brushed the bees off the top edge and put the cover on. Clumps of bees were still massed about the hive entrance, and there were a lot of stragglers making their way through the grass.

We both had places to be, so we left. On returning a couple hours later, there was no sign of the bees on the ground. Bees were coming and going from the hive entrance, just as they do at the established hive out on the pasture, flying off to forage on clover in the lawn and other flowers.

In a day or two, Mason will move the whole new colony in their hive to the area where his first Pinwheel Farm hive is. This will give them time to get established in their new house, as well as time for the lane to the pasture to dry out after about an inch of rain yesterday.

Where did they come from? We'll never know. It's possible that yesterday's rain flooded out a wild swarm living in a hollow tree. But wherever they came from, they are most welcome here.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Targetting Weeds

My to-do list today was enough to occupy me for a month. As I feel my leave of absense from bus-driving winding down to the last few days (I go back full-time Friday), I'm appalled at how much I DIDN'T get done.

What I ended up doing today wasn't even on the list. It was just the right day, the right time, the right weather.

I got up earlier than usual this morning, and got a lot of little things done by lunch time. Then one of my apprentices came, just as it was beginning to sprinkle. If she hadn't been here, I'd have called it a day and gone inside to various household tasks. But I needed to provide guidance on a new aspect of the gardening work.

We're planting tomatoes still. Mulching for tomatoes carries some different concerns from mulching for potatoes, because as soon as I plant them, I put the cage on, and once the cage is on and tied down with the other cages in the row, it is very difficult to repair or reinforce the mulch. With potatoes, the more you throw on top the better. Also, tomatoes will be using that mulch right up until frost--more than 4 months--while the potatoes usually poop out after a few months.

What I ended up doing while she mulched was a "targetted weeding" of a plant I believe is commonly called "hedge parsley". It looks like a smaller, delicate Queen Anne's Lace: fine carroty foliage and small umbels of white flowers. The seeds are like carrot seed or Queen Anne's Lace too--except larger and more burr-like. A run through a ripe hedge parsley patch can completely ruin a sheep's fleece, so this plant is on the Pinwheel Farm Noxious Weed List.

This has been a good season for it; it's everywhere I look. quite pretty, actually, where it's growing mingled with the pretty blue hairly vetch. I've been watching it out of the corner of my eye all season, pulling it whenever it's convenient. But today I noticed that the earliest seeds are just days away from becoming wool-tangling burrs.

Sheep love this weed when it's green, so I threw some over the fence. Then I decided it was the day to tackle the whole hoard of them. Starting at one corner of the garden space (lanes, paths, fallow areas, every inch), I systematically pulled up every hedge parsley plant I could find by the roots and threw the huge piles to the sheep.

It's one of the most enjoyable targetted weedings that I do, because you can grasp the central stem of a branching plant several feet off the ground, pull gently, and the entire plant, root and all, will part company with the soil. So easy! And the rain moistening the soil as I worked aided in this, though at one point there was a torrential downpour and I was soaked to the bone the rest of the day.

It's also likely a relatively effective weeding. I don't know about this particular member, but cultivated members of the carrot family have very short-lived seeds. Parsnip seed must be planted the year after it's harvested in order to grow at all. Carrot seed declines after a year or two. So if I can successfully prevent it from seeding in the garden for a few years, I may essentially be rid of it.

In about 3 hours, I rid nearly the entire garden complex of this weed. There'll be a few that I missed, and I'll watch for them the rest of the season. I'll take the time to pull the few that have been mowed in the lane, because they're likely to set a few seeds very close to the ground, desparately trying to keep their species alive in this ecosystem.

I'm gradually working on targetted weeding of Sweet Annie. This aromatic, decorative is avoided by all of the reasons why it's colonizing huge areas of the yard and starting to appear in the garden and sheep pens. Each plant can grow to enormous proportions--like the proverbial mustard seed, though mustard seeds are quite large by comparison with Sweet Annie--and sets hundreds of thousands of very tiny seeds. This plant is painstaking: it must be grasped at base of the plant, which means searching among the blades of grass for each one. If a stub is left, it will branch and grow back tens times bigger. I'm tackling little areas at a time--from the hydrant to the washhouse one day, along the back walk the next. Just working a little at a time (it's something I can do left-handed while talking on the cell phone, and the phone reception is best in the back yard where the Sweet Annie is thickest), I can actually see the progress now.

Other targetted weedings include ragweed (when I notice that it's about to start blooming, so that I don't contribute too much to everyone's hay fever misery), Japanese Hop Vine (before it flowers, which is SOON), sow thistle (before seeds mature) and reluctantly (because it's also my favorite cooked green) lambsquarters, before it become too large to pull.

Some weeds are contant efforts. Morning glories (yes, the pretty pale blue ones) sprout constantly and grow at an amazing rate. So we pull them constantly, ideally when just the two "M" shaped seed leaves are spreading. If let go, it quickly entwines everything. Cocklebur is another weed we try to eliminate as early as possible in its growth, just because it is so awful in wool.

Of course, the overall goal is a relatively weed-free garden. But I'm not there yet...didn't get enough mulching done last fall and winter. Meanwhile, strategic weeding helps to minimize economic damage to crops this year, and reduces future weed problems by preventing significant deposits of new seeds in the soil seed bank. Eventually fewer of the really troublesome weeds will sprout each year.

And in fact, I've been succesful at almost entirely eliminating a particular plant by this method. At one time, there was a huge patch of sand-bur (bur grass) in the back yard, and a smaller colony in the front. Both infestations seem to be gone. It still appears now and then on the pasture. The reward for those years of tedious, painful, meticulous pulling of this selected weed from among all the lawn grasses is a very special one: I can go barefoot in the yard now!

Other People's Dreams

"You should grow Sweet Annie! It's easy to grow, and then you can dry it and dye it and sell it at Farmer's Market! I can use it to make wreathes, too!" said a Helpful Friend. So I bought a 6-pack and planted it along the walkway by the back door. By the end of the summer it was 6 feet tall and covering most the path. I got harvest/post-harvest instructions from a flower-growing friend, and got some harvested and almost dried before running out of steam. HF was nowhere in the picture.

I've thought about this a lot lately because I've figured out why the lady I bought the starts from was snickering. My cell phone reception is best in the back yard, so I've been spending a lot of time there. And so that the time I'm on the phone isn't wasted, I weed the yard with my left hand. And the thing I am weeding is Sweet Annie, which probably produced close to a million seeds that first year. Sheep don't like it--it has a pungent fragrance--so it grows abundantly, untouched by any of the animals and more than happy to fill in the bare spots where the sheep grub out their favorite forages. It is extending its territory on the farm year by year. I am vowing never to let it seed again on my land.

Another Helpful Friend encouraged me to buy the pony, Jasmine, that I had for a couple years. I have very little experience with equines; HF related once again how she'd worked in stables all through adolescence, and assured me that she would teach me everything I needed to know. The day the pony arrived, HF was there waiting, good as gold. Too good, perhaps. Excited to have a horse in her life again, she immediately began teaching me how to lead the pony. Around and around the frozen wintery garden in big circles, HF drove us: Me leading the reluctant pony, HF walking behind.

Too close behind. Finally, at wit's end, the tired and throughly confused, newly transplanted pony had had all she could take. She let a swift kick fly at my friend, who really should have known better than to stand in striking distance. The impressive bruise on HF's thigh was a fitting symbol for our thoroughly bruised friendship. HF judged the pony as vicious and swore she would never go near it again. I secretly sided with the pony, and judged the HF as unreasonable to expect the pony to take in stride a rigourous training session after the 1/2 hour trailer ride down gravel roads to a new farm with new people. But, without a mentor I really couldn't do much with the pony, and eventually I sold her to an excellent home with a little girl and a knowledgeable extended family who simply adored her.

Another HF heard that I'd been offered a free llama. "Oh, take it, take it" HF cried. "I'll help you train it." HF never even saw the llama; she ended our friendship soon after insisting that I needed a llama. Wednesday morning the shearer will come shear the llama--always a somewhat gruesome event involving ropes, cussing, spewing of half-digested food, unearthly shrieks of protest, and kicking.

This is an ongoing pattern: people encouraging me to live out their dreams (which are my dreams, too--though if left to myself they are low-priority ones) only to abandon me as soon as things get a little too "interesting" or monotonous.

Apparently, with an accomplice I will try just about anything (maybe not bungee jumping...), plunging headlong into a new endeavor, eager to be working with a friend on a shared project. Apparently, I tend to pick accompices who will bail out when the project is barely begun.

Right now I am contemplating major changes in how the farm is operated, in my off-farm job, and in my personal life. I find myself desparately lonely for an accomplice...someone to bounce it all off of, to enthusiastically tell me to do the thing I want to do, but am afraid I am terribly unprepared (usually with good reason).

How much of the farm is MY dream? How much is someone else's? And who will actually stick around when there's work to be done?

Sunday, June 17, 2007


This a turning point in the farm's seasons.

For some people, the upcoming solstice--official beginning of summer--is The Day. For me, it is the harvest day when I realize that the lettuce is at its end. Of 7 varieties, only two were harvestable for market today. I may graze off the others a bit this week, but the stalks are bolting into great ruffly towers, and the flavor is becoming more and more bitter. Spinach, too, is bolting--I wish I'd harvested more last week, but as it was I didn't sell it all.

At market this morning, I told customers "It will hold better in your fridge than it will in the field." I urged them to stock up, at least a little.

At the same time, other crops are coming into their own.Over the past week or two, I've picked snow peas from the few plants that survived the "Easter Freeze"--not enough for market, but a bounty for personal use and to share with friends. I rummaged out a few new potatoes from the plants that sprang up from last year's lost tubers. The broccoli that survived the freeze yielded a few small heads. The remaining green onions are all progressing into nice-sized, pungent bulbs which I'm keeping for home use. The garlic that regrew from bulbs the tenants didn't get dug was ready to harvest, so I did. The carrots that survived the freeze--esp. a beautiful red-skinned variety named Purple Dragon, if I remember right--are sizing up.

All that added up to a pasta salad, with a few raisins, dried cranberries and pecans thrown in, and some cooked chicken breast. Instead of mayonnaise, I use plain yoghurt as a dressing: low-fat, and blends well without overwhelming the various flavors of the fresh veggies.

No other seasoning is really needed.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dog Gone

Lucy went home last night, after a week-and-a-half vacation on the farm while her people travelled.

Lucy came to me as Lucky. Her owner, an elderly acquaintance, was moving and could not take her beloved dog. Since she had rescued the spunky Blue Heeler from the "pound"several years earlier, she just couldn't bring herself to take her back there. She asked if I could help.

I agreed to keep Lucky until we could find a good home for her. Lucky was a foster dog at the farm for a long time, but eventually a farm visitor fell in love with her and offered her a permanent home. She thus because Lucy, since her new owner's neighbor had a dog named Lucky.

Visiting the farm for the first time in perhaps 4 years, Lucy still clearly remembers now-12-year-old Toss, and accords her the respect due to the alpha dog of the farm. But Luna was born after Lucy left the farm. Luna and Lucy bitterly contested second place when they were in the house. Each thought she had a valid claim to dominance, because each thought she had been there first.

It's always fun having canine guests here, whether for a few hours or a few days. I learn things about my dogs, and I see my dogs learning things as well. It's a pleasant change of routine.

And it's always a relief when the guests go home.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Snake Saga

Just a quick update tonight on the snake saga.

Yesterday I did a lot of work out on the pasture: digging musk thistles (an official Noxious Weed in the state of Kansas), repairing fences, moving the portable electric fence, troubleshooting the electric topwires that carry the charge to various parts of the farm. Usually Toss is out there ranging around on the pasture with me, hunting mice and generally enjoying the wide open space as much as I do.

But yesterday, instead of running around, she was glued to the fence between the sheep pen and the garden. There is about a half block (23' x 50', plus lanes) of ground that is part of the Graduat Students' community garden, that they are not using. I've bordered it with the portable electric fence so that the sheep can mow it until the grad students are ready to plant it. A few days ago, I flash grazed them on it (12 hours, to grub things down pretty well without them picking up too much parasite load from the short grass). In the middle of the block, there was a tuft of higher grass left where a tree branch lay so that the sheep couldn't browse under it very well.

I finally opened the gate to this little paddock for her, just to try to figure out why she wanted in that pen so badly. I certainly couldn't see anything to attract her there....

She made a beeline for the tree branch, and I walked up to get a closer look. I guess I was expecting something like coyote scat.

Looking for all the world like a shadow under the tree branch, one of the black rat snakes lay draped across a desecrated wild rabbit nest. The snake's shape clearly indicated the ingestion of a number of baby wild rabbits.

Rabbits, of course, can a serious pest in the vegetable garden, but in fact I have rarely had detectible crop damage in recent years. I think I'm beginning to understand why, and to more fully appreciate the role of these handsome snakes in the Community of Life here at Pinwheel Farm.

I'm also appreciating anew the relationship that I have with my beloved old Toss, that let me pay attention to her interest and respond to satisfy it. And I appreciate her wisdom, patience, and cleverness in directing my attention to a matter of happy concern to me.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


I am eating of the year's first harvest of new potatoes from the farm as I write.

For now I will sidestep the issues of a) eating dinner at this hour and b) eating while writing on the computer, instead of properly at the kitchen table paying full attention to my food. At this point in my re-settling--my re-learning how to live in a house and prepare food and find a reasonable balance in my life--I give myself credit simply for cooking the simplest of foods at any time of day and eating them while sitting, instead of "dining" on junk food over the kitchen sink. Progress, not perfection. I'll get my life back on track, eventually, through tiny baby steps like boiling a few new potatoes at 11:30 p.m.

Tonight I'm eating Caribe, a gorgeous variety with a jewel-like purple skin and white flesh. Don't ask me to describe the flavor: Yes, each potato tastes different; no, I can't put it in words without sounding even more ridiculous than a wine-taster. One just has to taste each one and learn to know its particular character, much like getting to know a friend. I first grew Caribe last year: previous seasons, it was always sold out by the time I ordered the "seed" tubers.

This year, I was able to get it again, and planted a bed on May 25. But wait--how am I eating potatoes when I only planted them a few weeks ago?

Actually, I'm eating from last year's potato patch. Despite carefully digging up last year's crop, and a fairly severe winter, quite a few potato plants of different varieties sent up healthy sprouts from tubers I somehow over looked in harvesting. These plants sprouted up when THEY, not I, decided it was optimum conditions for them to grow. They are now lush plants bursting into bloom, pink and white and lavender and pale blue. I gathered about 5 lbs. from the various varieties in just a few minutes of spontaneous rummaging with my bare hands the other day.

I started planting potatoes this year when these persistent plants began sprouting, showing me that ground conditions were ideal for this crop. They have their own inner wisdom about when it's time to grow. They know much more about being a potato plant than I ever will.

Other plants are volunteering in the garden. Some are apparently from seed that was planted in previous seasons, but didn't germinate until this year: A few endives and a kale in the bed where they were grown year before last (now a lettuce bed); a lettuce plant where the tenants grew salad mix last fall. A watermelon vine sprang up in the potato patch last year, from a seed from the previous year; I let it grow only to discover that it's a tasteless, all-white pickling water melon. The seeds never seemed to darken, as normal melon seeds do when ripe, but nevertheless a number of vines are springing up from the remains of last year's unharvested fruit.

Of course, there are the "crops" that sow themselves every year: lambsquarters, chickweed, dandelions. And the perennials, including the "walking onions" (a.k.a. multiplier onions, Egyptian onions, top-setting onions) which I often plant out in rows to have green onions late in the fall and early in the spring.

On a sweeter note, I picked a handful of black raspberries from a new bush along the front fence. I didn't plant it--as has happened several times now since I moved to the farm, the birds planted it, and it has evidently flourished hidden for a couple years to become the modest thicket I recently discovered. Raspberry bushes fall prey to a virus after a few years in this region; I used to mourn the demise of each patch, but I've learned to trust that while they are in decline in one area, they are springing forth anew somewhere else.

These plants remind me how trivial my job as a farmer is. It is not I who makes the plants grow--I only assist in the most rudimentary way by trying to create an environment where they will flourish. Mainly this means keeping weeds from smothering them, keeping the sheep from eating them, keeping the farm a farm instead of residential lots.

Little by little, Eden arises from this soil all by itself. Yes, I work hard at the farm, striving to grow crops for sale at the Farmer's Market. But an increasing part of my subsistence--the food I receive directly from the earth, rather than purchasing it with money raised by growing other food--grows without any real work on my part except allowing these plants to not grow in nice neat rows.

I am grateful for these persistent plants bring me surprising bounty.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Dig it!

A friend called this morning and wanted to come get some "farmercize" of the digging sort. She is especially fond of digging, and loves my delightfully dig-able stoneless soil.

I, myself, am not so fond of broad scale digging, either as a way of engaging in physical activity or as a means of managing a patch of ground. Therefore I am always grateful to receive this sort of call from her. However, sometimes I have to re-envision how various goals around the farm can be achieved, in order to come up with a worthwhile application of her passion for digging.

One of the legacies of the tenants' lack of weed control in the garden is that a number of beds--including several that are slated to be planted with tomato plants ASAP--are badly overgrown with tall fescue. Had it been carefully hand weeded when it was small, it would have pulled up easily after rains like we've had lately. But now the clumps are several inches in diameter, and the flower stalks are reaching for 3' tall in places. Pulling them is more back breaking than digging, so here's a task well suited to her desires.

But we had (yet another) torrential downpour last night, so the dirt doesn't shake easily from the fine, dense root masses of the fescue. In fact, it doesn't shake at all. And scraping mud out of roots is a bit beyond her definition of pleasurable digging. Tomorrow (assuming no more rain) would be perfect dirt-shaking conditions, but today is the day she is here.

We decided the best approach was for her to dig up the clumps and turn them over to dry out a bit, then the next day I would shake them out. But it was soon apparent that the clumps of grass were indistinquishable from the grass-less dirt, once they were upside down. The chances of leaving a vigorous upside down clump to be mulched over, only for it to spring back and engulf a tomato plant a few weeks later, were unacceptably high. Fescue is a durable and determined grass.

The solution turned out to be a pile of used galvanized corrugated roofing I recently acquired from the local metal recycler. By happy coincidence, the sheets are the exact width of the paths between the beds, and the length is such that two of them nicely overlap to border an entire bed from end to end. We placed them along the bed she was digging, where they will also hopefully smother out the fescue clumps in the path, in due time. She turned the clumps upside-down onto the metal, and we left them in the sun all day.

Tonight there was a bit of twilight left when I got home from work, so I checked the situation out. The dirt was fairly dry, and shook out very nicely with a couple of whacks of the root clump on the edge of the roofing. Using this method, the dirt removal took a fraction of the time it would have taken earlier. The volume of the clumps was reduced by well more than half, with that much dirt going back into the bed rather than on the path or wherever the fescue ended up.

A subtle but serious drawback to the common practice of hand weeding well-grown weeds and placing them on the paths between the beds is that over time, much dirt (as well as the organic matter of the plant, though that is a much smaller volume) is transfered to the paths, resulting in rising paths and sinking beds. If I throw the weeds over the fence to the sheep, the sheep pen rises (not necessarily a bad thing) but the bed still sinks. Though not much of a problem in our well-drained soil, it's good cultural practice to avoid reinforcing habits that create a sunken bed, since we aren't raising rice. There is always a chance I might end up gardening in less perfect soil elsewhere someday. Also, I want to teach the farm volunteers and visitors principles and methods that are generally applicable in a variety of soils. In a soil with a higher clay content, a sunken bed would invite rot and drown small plants on a regular basis.

Tomorrow, I'll finish shaking out the dirt from the other half of the bed, and mulch it immediately to retain moisture and prevent new weeds from germinating. I've found that maybe as much as 90% of weeding is wasted effort if the area is not mulched within a day or will simply have to be done again and again. So I try hard to never weed without following it up with a good mulch. It's so much quicker than weeding again and again.

However, I probably won't plant this bed immediately after mulching. It's along a lane, and the next two beds north of it need the same treatment. If I plant the tomato plants right away, I'll have to work around the cages to mulch the other beds...making the work slower. Being able to wheel the cart across one mulched bed to reach the next without regard for tiny plants will speed the mulching considerably.

It took my friend perhaps an hour to dig the clumps out, maybe less. I spent less than half an hour shaking out dirt on half the bed. It will take perhaps 2 hours to thoroughly mulch this bed with waste hay, set out 10 tomato plants at 24" spacing, put cages on them, and tie the cages down. So a total of about three hours will be invested in this bed of tomatoes prior to harvest. From planting until harvest, the only work in these beds (if they are properly mulched to start with) will be walking through weekly to check for morning glory seedlings.

Morning glories come up continuosly all season through any mulch and are a serious nuisance as they climb cages and entangle plants. These habits have long earned them a place on the "Pinwheel Farm Noxious Weeds" list. Pretty pale blue flowers do not redeem them, I'm afraid; the seeds can remain viable in the soil for decades. If other weeds appear, there is a weak spot in the mulch that needs to be mended with more mulch.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Water, water everywhere....

It rains, again and again. My hay supplier prays for drought so he can cut and bale. I schedule volunteer work days for my days off, it rains that morning, and the volunteers make other plans for the day. The potatoes still aren't all planted, and Mom and Dad delivered my 200 tomato plants Thursday. The bright side is, I haven't had to water the plants despite their tiny pots!

The days are in the 80's; the nights are cool; the rain is bountiful; the soil is well-drained and fertile; there is nothing to limit the growing of things...except that the main bank of seeds in the ground are weed seeds, not vegetable seeds. I wish--hope upon hope--that I'd had time to plant more, weeks ago. But my years of farming experience tell me, in a small faint whisper almost drowned by my impatience, that God has His hand in all of this, and all will be well.

Whenever (that is to say, several times annually) I panic about my failure to get things planted on a timely basis, I think of the summer early in my farming career that I put my last tomato plants in the ground on July 4, just "on principle" to be able to truthfully tell my mother I had planted all the plants she lovingly grew for me. Who would expect to harvest anything from those plants, especially with no irrigation? Sometimes all that drives me is my motto, "If I don't plant it, it CERTAINLY won't grow!"

It did not rain for 6 weeks after the 4th of July that year. The July plants, having been seriously stunted in their tiny pots, were small and didn't need much water, so they came through the drought without missing a day's growth. But the growers who got their plants in "on time" and irrigated them simply couldn't put enough water on their mature, fruiting plants during August to keep them alive and producing. My early-planted tomatoes languished, their height and vigor (or lack thereof) graphically displaying their distance from the roots of the neighbor's trees 50' to the west of the garden. For most of the fall, I was pretty much the only grower with tomatoes for sale at the Farmer's Market. It was an important lesson.

The theory of driving the bus full time and working the farm looks possible on paper, but the turn-around between Farmer's Market ending at 11 a.m. and needing to leave the farm for work by 12:15 just doesn't work in practice, even with the help of a dedicated apprentice who puts things away and washed up after market. She's still working through all the mistakes that one has to make in order to learn this trade, and I'm not there to double-check things.

When I arrived home at 9:00 this evening, I heard the ominous sound of the water pump running. Let anyone argue with me that radio, TV, etc. should be allowed in the house--they argue in vain! Background sound would have drowned out the soft, steady thrum of the pump in the basement.

The water pump running when no one has been home for hours can simply mean that the toilet is leaking, the sheep have just had a thirsty moment and the automatic waterer cycled to refill their tank, the water softener is going through its "back flushing" cycle--something normal like that. But I always stop and listen, after checking the toilet. And tonight the pump did not stop.

A leaky hydrant or shut-off, a hole in a hose, a waterer knocked out of a water tank by jostling sheep--these are the most common causes of an incessant pump. I respond to the running pump by making a tour of the hydrants.There was enough daylight left--twilight, really--to see that the hydrant that supplies the hose to the washhouse where we clean vegetables and market equipment had been left on, as I expected. I checked the hydrant...not leaking at any of the connections: a miracle, a good thing, I'm pleased. Probably the sprayer in the wash house is leaking...but no, to my amazement.

I might have missed seeing the problem in less light. But the pale sky reflected clearly in the broad puddle around the rams' water tank, stark against the black of the wet muddy ground in the twilight.

I had filled the rams' tank earlier this week, switching on the branch of the 4-hose manifold that supplies a hose that runs far across the back yard to the obscure tank. The apprentice has no involvement in the care of the rams, and wishes none. The hose is woven into the fence so that it is permanently aimed into the tank. All I have to do to top up their tank is turn on the hydrant, open that branch of the manifold, and turn off the hydrant 10 or 15 minutes later. Of course, I was in a hurry to get to work on time, so I just turned off the hydrant without shutting off the hose that goes to the rams' tank.

Yesterday I was in a similar hurry to get everything done before I had to leave for work when I turned the hydrant on to wash lettuce for market. How frustrating that the water pressure was so low! But the apprentice was in the house washing eggs, and I assumed (let me know if you don't know the joke about what THAT does...) that was the cause of the low water pressure. And of COURSE the pump was running when I went in the house and she wasn't running water at all...I had the sprayer set to a steady trickle so that it would fill the huge commercial stainless steel sink slowly during the time I was picking the first few varieties of lettuce.

I have a habit of "always" checking the manifold for unnecessary open branches when I turn the hydrant on...partly because I've caused a few flood puddles myself, and partly because I've blasted cold water into my boot more than once from an open hose-less branch, and partly because Murphy's Law says that I'll get all the way into the wash house only to discover that ALL the branches were closed, including the one I needed, and I'll have to make another round trip to the hydrant. So I should have caught the open branch to the ram pen then.

But the apprentice hasn't learned that habit. I can't blame her. I haven't taught her. It's so much a habit, I don't even think about it. This farming is a hard job to teach because there are so many "simple", "obvious", interrelated things that one simply forgets one knows/does. And if I remember and try to tell everything I know--everything I'm thinking about and paying attention to as I go through the motions of operating the vast, complex living machine that is the farm....then it so easily comes across to the novice that I'm overstating the obvious, assuming she has no common sense, overwhelming her with a million little inconsequential details. The eyes glaze over after the first 15-minute introductory lecture on how to operate a water hydrant...and that's just the warm weather version, and none of the repair and maintenance.

Yesterday the apprentice remembered to turn off the hydrant before she left.

Today, she didn't.

And no one was there to hear the pump running all day, pumping a shameful amount of potable water onto the ground. A sin against all the world's peoples who must walk hours a day to carry the few precious muddy drops that will sustain them until tomorrow! I am glad I don't have a head for numbers; otherwise I'd be tempted to self-flagellate by calculating the exact number of gallons that have been drawn from the alluvial flow under the farm, only to be immediately sent back through the sandy soil.

If I had any doubts about the wisdom of my recent decision to take some extended time off from the full-time bus driving, they are gone, washed into the flooded Kansas River by human error and lack of a back up system.

It took me decades to begin to understand the saying, "The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow." This is what it means: One must be present to cast a shadow; one must be present to attend to the sound of the pump humming in the distance. Without the farmer's presence, things do not seem to go as well....