Thursday, May 22, 2008

Trojan Horses

Over the years, we have evolved an extensive written Pinwheel Farm Environmental Policy. It covers a dizzying array of environmental issues that ought to be considered whenever we undertake a project, to help ensure we are not creating future problems. When new, unforeseen problems arise, we re-read it and see if we need to add to or change the policies based on our experience. It is a "living document".

So I read through it, thinking about the proposed water main. What environmental policies might come into play?

At first, everything seemed fairly straight forward and obvious. Easy enough to insist that no chemical herbicides be used.

Then I read the section on biosecurity, and suddenly thought of the bulldozers. The surveyors' boots. The dump trucks. The hay bales for construction runoff mitigation.

Trojan horses.

As many weeds as we already have, there are some we don't. Some that we don't want because they are State noxious weeds, like Jimpson Weed. Some that we don't want because they are Pinwheel Farm noxious weeds, economically damaging to our wool crop, like Burdock. Probably hundreds of others we won't even know we don't want until they have colonized our farm unnoticed. Some we already have, but only in limited areas where we are aggressively controlling them, like bindweed.

How much dirt does it take to carry a weed seed? To see the garden spout up in the spring, you really wonder whether "dirt" is more seed than soil. Who knows what the illicit surveyors have already brought in? Their "gifts" could lie in waiting for years, taking us by surprise after a fire or a prticularly wet or dry season favors their sprouting.

How long can a noxious weed seed last in the soil, waiting to sprout up when conditions are exactly right? In the case of dodder or bindweed, 20 or 30 years.

Even sneakier, what about soil-borne micro-organisms? Many can last for decades in the soil. So far we have never had footrot or soremouth, both devastating sheep diseases that are soil-borne. But disease organisms can have more subtle effects. They can affect every member of the ecosystem: plants, trees, fungi, insects, birds, wildlife, other microorganisms.

When visitors walk in from the parking areas, we assume that any noxious weed seeds will fall out in the yard area, where we will notice alien plants promptly and prevent them from setting seed. If we know visitors are from other farms (excluding a few long-time "partner farms" with whome we share breeding stock and hence all associated parasites and diseases) we ask them to bring clean shoes or to use protective "booties" to prevent cross-contamination between our farms...for their safety as well as ours.

We feed hay in the barn, sheep pen, and garden areas only, where we are working frequently and can be aware of new weeds sprouting. Hay and straw often contain unwanted seeds. In fact, this is most likely how dodder found its way to our property. Dodder is a parasitic weed that the tenants allowed to proliferate on the pasture as well as in the garden. It's like a vegetative virus, reproducing not just from copious seeds with a 30-year life span, but also from any small fragment of stem that falls on a host plant. Parts of the pasture are saturated with dodder seed, waiting for propitious weather conditions to sprout. Do our neighbors want these infesting their soybean field? Construction equipment could be an insidious vector in spreading this virulent plant that is so economically devastating there is a zero tolerance for its seed in commercially marketed seed of any kind in all 50 states...the only such nationwide ban on any particular weed, to my knowledge.

Is this concern unrealistic? Actually, it's based on experience. We started out without ANY bindweed, "Mountain Mint", dodder, Sweet Annie, Moon Flower, or Japanese Hop Vine. These invasive plants have come in and established themselves, requiring untold amounts of labor every year to try to diminish their hold on the farm. One of these came in with dirt clinging to building stone that we purchased...many other plants came from that tiny bit of soil; some we welcomed; some we tolerated for a time and then eradicated them (though we still find seedlings now and then); one we will never be rid of. Some of these were first noticed by the tenants during my sabbatical, but they allowed them to spread unchecked so that they became well-established. A significant portion of our vegetable garden has been taken out of production for the ext couple years to try to contain and eradicate one of them.

We also purchased two insidious, economically devastating sheep diseases in our early ignorance of biosecurity. We have watched a friend go through the heartache of "depopulating" her sheep and goat farm due to a disease, having to wait several years for the soil to clean itself, and then begin again with new breeding stock. Such an outbreak would obliterate the extensive genetic improvement we've made in our flock. We've been working for twelve years to select a flock to exacting standards of performance, standards that are essential to our successful business. There are not other sheep available out there that meet all of our standards, because part of it is selection for thriving in our very specific micro-environment.

I'm having a hard time picturing the meticulous decontamination of every piece of personnel and equipment that crosses our border from neighboring properties that I KNOW harbor noxious weeds that we don't currently have on the pasture, like bindweed. And I know that sterilizing any fill dirt that's brought in won't stop every weed seed from sprouting...when I worked at a local greenhouse, Japanese Hop Vine sprouted regularly from every batch of soil we steam sterilized.

An Appeal

Please keep Pinwheel Farm in your thoughts and prayers in the weeks to come. A potentially disastrous scenario is unfolding.

The nearby City of Lawrence is proposing to run a large water main through the middle of my pasture and my CRP/wilderness area. The proposed alignment they showed me this afternoon would destroy the very fences my apprentice and I were building this afternoon, and restrict my access to half of my pasture during construction. Yes, that's a good observation. I'm not IN the City, so why do they want to put a water line here? Do they even have the right to, if I don't agree to it?

I don't have time for this. I need to be planting my crops, building my fences, managing the rotational grazing system to improve the pasture. I don't have time for meetings, phone calls, emails. Yet I've already spent fully 5 hours focused on this project that isn't mine--NOT counting the time I've spent talking to friends and family, writing this blog entry, or the other e-mails I've written tonight.

I need your help, in whatever way you can offer. Help getting my farm work done, to make up for time lost to meetings and phone calls. Someone to find me a cell phone with a good hands-free system that works well in the wind, so I can work and talk at the same time...and teach me how to use it. Expertise in various, ag economics, fencing, rotational grazing management, business issues, the value of local food production and sustainable farming. Little stuff, like printer paper and ink and gas money, that can nickel and dime me to death. Meals. Moral support. Prayers. Ideas for how to minimize my losses if I can't get them to take their pipeline somewhere else. Networking. Letters to the editor, to City staff, etc. if this becomes necessary.

Why did they decide my farm was the ideal location for their water main? Because on the map it looks "undeveloped"--i.e., not a lot to be damaged by bringing in a bunch of heavy equipment, therefore not a lot of restoration costs. No roads. No buildings.

In reality, the farm is a 12-acre ecological "machine" or "factory". Every part is interdependent with every other part. The number of sheep that I have require the full use of the pasture. Less pasture equals less sheep, unless I feed them expensive (and less nutritious) purchased feed...and then I can't market "pasture-fed lambs" any more. Fewer sheep doesn't mean less work and less profit, it means the same work and no profit because much of the labor is "fixed costs". it takes the same time to move the fence for 10 sheep as for 20, and a minimum 21-day rotation is still required to conrol parasites. Fewer sheep mean less waste hay mulch for the garden, hence purchased inputs, more labor or fewer crops.

If the sheep don't graze an area, it reverts quickly to woodland...mostly scrub elm. I'm still struggling to revive the pasture after the tenants overgrazed it, then failed to controll the elm trees.

My sheep operation is not something that can be temporarily moved to a remote location. I need to be there every moment I can during lambing. I need to tend them several times a day. I need to hear their voices if they're in trouble. I am milking some of them right now. I need the infrastructure of the house, the garage, the old barn, the new barn, the working chute, the loading ramp, the llama, the Border Collies. It's not a laptop, it's a mainframe.

Fewer sheep means I couldn't supply all my customers. Those customers will go somewhere else for lamb, and probably not come back. So when I rebuild the flock, I'll have to rebuild the customer base. Again. I am still rebuilding it from the fiasco of the tenants during my sabbatical.

The fences aren't "legos" that can be pulled part piece by piece...the farm's whole fencing system is a single system electrically. The high-tensile wire is stretched continuously around two sides; cutting a gap for construction equipment would require rebuilding hundreds of feet. To my knowledge, this is the only green-cote high-tensile woven wire/high tensile electric sheep fence in Douglas County or maybe even Kansas. I built it painstakingly with the help of consultants in Iowa. I don't think the Yellow Pages will turn up a fencing contractor with any experience in this specialty area.

This system and I have worked together for 12 years now. I could not be doing what I am doing right now--working off the farm, rebuilding the farm, and farming--if most of what I do on the farm wasn't established procedures that require little thought. Taking away half of the pasture for a season or more (because it takes more than one season to establish good pasture) would be the farm's equivalent of a broken arm or leg. First I would have to learn to compensate for the loss of its use, and function at a much lower level for a time. Then I would have to re-learn how to use it when it became available again.

I have long envisioned the farm as an ark. Partly because it's a huge project attempted by one quirky visionary person at the direction of God! But mostly because it's envisioned as a refuge for the natural community of life in the face of a wide array of environmental challenges. These many species can shelter here, and breed, and survive to repopulate the surrounding area if folks ever stop paving things and start growing trees and grasslands. So running a pipeline through the middle of the "ark" is like, well, running a pipe through the hull of a ship. It will be awfully hard to keep it afloat and repair it at the same time, meanwhile taking care of all those animals.

It's a discouraging prospect. Especially when I was just feeling that by the end of this season I really will finally be on top of a number of things that I've struggled with for the incomplete rotational grazing fences we are just now completing.

Thanks for all your support. I am creating and operating this farm for you, for our children and grandchildren and future generations. I am doing it for the wildlife that make it their home. But I can't do it alone. Your help will make it possible.

I can be contacted at, or by phone 785-979-6786, or by U.S. Postal Service at P.O. Box 1561, Lawrence, KS 66044.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Revisiting Rebar

Little by little, the farm grows and matures. Little by little, things on the still-expanding "to-do" list get checked off.

Sometimes I have to shake my head in amazement at how LONG seemingly small, simple tasks can take to accomplish...not to mention how many times we can make temporary quick fixes for the same thing before we finally do it right.

Today's milestone was getting ALL the rebar stakes sorted, straightened, and stacked in such a manner that they won't sink into the dirt, weeds can't grow up through them, they are easy to get to, and they are hard to trip over.

When I bought a large number of second-hand tomato cages from a large commercial grower a number of years ago, they came with rebar stakes to secure them to the ground--two per cage. After unloading and stacking all hundred or so tomato cages, dealing with the rebar (which didn't fit into our scheme for securing tomato cages) was not a high priority. We just threw it down on the ground in a stack next to the slaughter waste composter in the garden area, next to the truck. This was out of the main lane, at least.

They staaaayed there. Several years, maybe longer. We used them now and then for different things, but mostly we just tripped over the stack.

Eventually we dismantled that composter, so the rebar had to move. By then we had the galvanized shed. So I put down a sheet of corrugated metal in front of the far corner of the shed, and pounded a piece of rebar through the hole in the metal to keep the rebar from rolling, and thought I'd solved the problem. Dug the rebar out of the dirt and weeds. Hauled it all to the shed. Stacked it all rebar there. Felt smug.

The rebar was several different sizes. Every time I needed a piece of a certain size, I had to hunt. The pile gradually became less and less neat.

Sometimes the rebar got bent. I didn't want to throw it away, but it really didn't stack, bent. So I put the end of a barrel nearby, and put the really bent pieces in there. Other stuff got thrown in there, too. At least it had a hole in the bottom so that it drained, and didn't breed mosquitos.

The pile stuck out about a foot past the wall of the shed. This was fine when there was a fence a foot and a half past the wall of the shed, but then we moved the fence and the gate needed to be at the corner of the shed.

We started moving the pile to the back of the barn, a month or two ago, without much enthusiasm. We set up something to contain the rebar, but it didn't seem to work very well. We drew a blank on what could work better.

Today we finally got over to the neighbor's to pick up a pile of scrap lumber they'd said we could have. It included several narrow pallet-like deck sections. They were perfect for storing things rebar.

We covered the ground with corrugated metal, then put down the pallet along the north of the barn wall where we have a material depot. It's out of sight, and convenient to the garden.

To keep the rebar from rolling, and to separate the different sizes, we drove pieces of rebar through the gaps in the decking, through the corrugated metal, and into the ground. The t-post pounder worked well for this and ensured they were all the same height. We capped the vertical rebar posts with plastic safety caps (due to the impalement hazard of rebar stakes, we now have a policy that EVERY rebar stake be capped. The caps are cheap enough, and it really makes them visible to prevent tripping as well as impalement.).

Friend M. and I loaded the rest of the rebar from the galvanized shed onto various conveyances. We found that the simple plastic child's snow sled we use for hauling hay bales at feeding time is also perfect for hauling rebar, with the long ends projecting forward so they are confined from excessive rolling by the tow rope. Another conveyance that worked well is an odd cart that's like a wheel-barrow without the tub. A couple clamps kept the rebar from rolling off.

Apprentice E. and I sorted and straightened the entire pile this afternoon. Straightening use to be well-nigh impossible, but is very easy now...we have a special tool. It's the light stand for an old photographer's light! Essentially, it's a 3' pipe with legs on the bottom, and a 4-way coupling at the top. To straighten rebar, you just poke the rebar through the crosspiece of the stand, position the bend at the edge of the hole, and push or pull until the rebar is straight. E. proved to be very skilled at this, with his eye for detail. I sorted and he straightened, and together we got everything done.

The finished pile is truly a thing of beauty, at least to my eyes. And it will be so easy to find the stake I need! With the bending tool stored close at hand, there need never be tangled, bent rebar on the pile much easier.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Better Mouse Trap...NOT!

As I came and went through the entryway today, I kept smelling something. An all-too-familiar smell, one that always triggers exasperated sighs, eye rolling and riffling through dark corners. The smell of a dead mouse.

Somewhere. But where? The dogs aren't telling.

Every time I passed I tried to locate the source. It got stronger as the day progressed, but I couldn't see anything anywhere.

Tonight, I finally located it. The mouse had crawled under the unzipped lid of the soft-side lunch box that has stood empty on the shelf by the door, waiting for me to go back to work next week. In was crawled up some of the things nearby and had a nice porch to stand on while pushing under the lid. Once inside, it could only reach the top by jumping, and couldn't jump high enough to force the lid open AND jump out at the same time. So, it died.

Sigh. I really liked that lunch box. But I didn't waste any time or sentiment in consigning it to the trash!

One of those "what next?" moments.

Well, next was going out to milk the sheep.

Oneof the hazards of milking from the rear (which I do with most my sheep, becaue I can set the bowl where it's not guaranteed to be stepped on) is that they sometimes poop or pee while I'm trying to milk. Sometimes I see the warning signs and move aside in time. Sometimes I don't.

That's why I milk wearing my full Goretex rainsuit. (Well, that and the fact that Mabel's left teat is aimed very low, so I have to compensate by using a very high aim. Then I move on to milk Tory next, and her naturally high-aiming left teat--coupled with my just-established tendency to aim high--projects her first copious stream over the bowl and intersects with me about belly height.

Lately the sheep's poop has been rather soft, since they've been getting a lot of wet green feed (clover and grass, both very lush and full of water). This makes them a bit slimy to kneel on, and I frequently bless the inventor of Goretex.

Evidently certain plants create a flatulent condition in sheep. And the plants in the front sheep pen, where I've had them grazing recently, are a bit drier than their usual pasture, so the sheep had pelleted poops today. At first I thought this was a good thing....

The combination of flatulence and pelleted poop meant that every now and then, suddenly and at random, a sheep would PROJECT a poop pellet at me. At about face level.

M, you do not ever have to do this!

Playing God: The next day

I checked the cardinal and her nest when I did chores, rather late this morning. 2 eggs, one big hatchling, no snakes, threw the cat in the barn and gave him some cat food.

I went to show apprentice J. the nest this afternoon. Empty. No mom-cardinal anywhere in sight (or sound).

We looked on the ground below the arborvitaes. J.'s sharp eyes spotted the remaining egg, nestled in dry leaves, intact. It was a dirty pale color with blurry speckles on it, well camouflaged. There was just a tiny hole, typical of the hole a chick makes with its egg tooth. J. said she could see something moving inside (REALLY sharp eyes!).

As I held the tiny egg--less than an inch long--I realized a whole new previous episode to this drama. I don't think the hatchling that we saw in the nest was from an egg that small! I think the cardinal's nest had been parasitizedby a brown-headed cowbird (I saw a pair on the fence on the pasture just a few days ago). These birds lay their eggs in other bird's nests. Their baby hatches a day or two before the host's eggs, and the larger, stronger cowbird chick pushes its hosts' natural children out of the nest so that it gets all the food.

Those cardinal chicks never had a chance. It makes you wonder, how DO so many songbirds actually make it to maturity? It reaffirms my desire to make Pinwheel Farm a welcoming habitat for all species (well, except certain noxious weeds...), to give them a fighting chance of raising their next generation. So that my future generations can enjoy them.

We removed the nest to examine it. What a beautifully crafted little basket! The outer layer was pale, papery dry leaves tastefully blended with soft scraps of weathered white plastic bag. You could hardly tell the leaves from the plastic. Then there was a layer of dark brown, stringy bark, probably from the arborvitae itself. Inside that, a layer of dry grass stems, pale grayish. Finally, it was lined with smooth dry grass roots, all very uniform in size.

I set the egg in the nest, on the desk in the barn, hoping (sort of) that the egg would hatch. Good heavens, what am I thinking? I have time to foster parent a cardinal chick until I can get it to the pros?

Now we can consign the dead trees to the burn pile, before something else nests there.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Playing God

In Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, the role of "the gods" is to decide who should live and who should die. Most critters leave that up to God, but us people like to take it into our own hands...or at least dwell in the illusion that we're doing so.

A little while ago, I went to fetch a couple black tubs. They were laying on the ground under some 6' tall arbovitae trees that I had tried to rescue from someone's yard waste pile...they had been dug up by the roots to make room for different land scaping. Those people decided they trees should die. I decided they should live...if they wanted to. I heeled them in and watered them, but it looks like they are dying anyhow. I want to play God, but I'm not omnipotent.

When I turned a tub over, I shrieked in surprise. Not one but two 4' snakes were coiled in it! They were racers of some sort, bluish/slatey/olive on top, with bright yellow bellies. Slender heads, barely larger around than their necks.

One raced off, the other stayed a few minutes in the tub, poking its nose over the edge in different directions. It never stopped vibrating the tip of its tail like a rattlesnake...had it been in dry leaves, I would have certainly been concerned.

When it leaped out of the tub, it headed up an arborvitae. Instant pandemonium ensued! Feathers flew, and female cardinal erupted out of the shrub into my face and fluttered to a nearby fence, chucking a loud warning call.

I looked in the bush, cautiously. Sure enough, there was a nest with 2 eggs and a new hatchling...and the snake, poised to have a savory lunch. I grabbed at the snake and he moved off to another arborvitae, waiting for me to leave so he could eat. I decided the baby birds should live a bit longer. So I grabbed his tail (I happened to have on leather gloves) and in one swift motion yanked him out of the tree and threw him into the grass some ways away.

He lost no time in racing back to the tree and trying to climb again. This time, I used a board to flip him out into the open where I could step on his back (gently...I wanted him to live, too). Then I got him by the head and picked him up. What a beautiful thing!

I took him off to a pasture area far from the arborvitae, not too near any dense shrubs where songbirds might be nesting. I flung him as far as I could over the fence. He lay there looking at me for a few minutes before I went back to check the nest.

The cardinal was still sounding her alarm. Was the other snake attacking the nest now? Oh, the cat has been lying there watching the whole drama. So really, I have only saved the baby birds from the snake in order that the cat might eat them when they leave the nest...or the cat might snag their parents.

I picked up the cat and brought it in the house and gave it some food.

I had decreed to a volunteer earlier in the day that the crispy trees, now turning brown, could be dug up again and consigned to the burn pile, but we never got around to it. That procrastination unintentionally saved the life of the tree's residents, undiscovered at that time. Had my friend tackled the removal, I doubt she would have realized that the bird's presence indicated a nest. The trees don't seem big enough for a nest...but it IS just the kind of low, bushy site that cardinals prefer.

Everyone wants to eat everything else, or so it sometimes seems. Who should live and who should die? I can interfere, but I can't guarantee long safe lives for those baby birds any more than I can for myself.

And really, any day is a good day to die when one is at peace with God. I think it is mainly humans that truly fear death...we don't trust God enough, and we aren't enough at peace with God most of the time. So often we hear or read about people "saving" lives...but all that really happens is lives are prolonged, and allowed to end in a different manner.

Little by little, I will work to eliminate the term "" from my speech. In honor of a cardinal family that was given reprieve many times in one afternoon, but will surely perish someday, sooner or later.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Homeland Security--Not!

What first caught my attention? I don't remember now.

All I remember is suddenly being aware that two large brown & black dogs were lunging towards the fence between my neighbor's yard and the pen where the dairy sheep were grazing. The sheep ran in utter terror, searching frantically for an opening in the fence that kept them penned near the dreadful dogs.

I ran, too, to try to get to the gate of their pen to let them into a safer area. While I ran, I managed to find my neighbor's phone number on my cell phone and dial it. She and her daughter responded within minutes. Housemate A. come running from the house...she must have seen them through her bedroom window. I called Animal Control (programmed into my cell phone just for occasions like this), which gets you 911 Dispatch. They said they'd send someone, even though the dogs weren't quite in the city, just in case they ended up there.

I threw open the gate and ran towards the dogs. Some of the sheep went through, some ran to the north end of the pen. I ran to chase them back to the relative safety of the back yard. The dogs ran through my neighbor's garden, lunging at the fence again and again. They ran towards the neighbor's house for a moment before the neighbors came out, and the ewe lambs and older bottle lambs in the south backyard pen tried to throw themselves through the back yard fence. One leaped so high at the fence that if it had not had an extra 18" of welded wire on the top of the 4' woven wire, she would have gone over the fence. If the fence had not been 2" x 4" horse mesh, they might have put legs or heads through the fence in ways that could have broken bones.

I ran at the dogs on the other side of the fence, yelling at them, trying to drive them towards the city limits. Once there, Animal Control could pick them up. Until then, they had the amnesty of Douglas County regulations. They lunged at me through the fence, snarling. Scary dogs. Probably 75 lbs. each, maybe more--they were the size of German Shepherds, and looked like Shepherd crosses (dark tips on the guard hairs, dark muzzles) but they were heavier set and more jowly. Maybe some Rottweiler or pit bull influence. They seemed like young dogs, litter mates most likely. Powerful dogs.

When they saw my neighbor coming, they loped off towards the north end of the neighbor's field and disappeared through the barbed wire fence into a plowed field. By the time I got to the corner of the fields, they had gone from view, probably into the woods on the other side of the plowed field.

The sheep in the yard were terribly anxious. Their lambs were with the flock out in the pasture, which the guardian llama had driven up into the sheep pen by the garden. The dairy ewes tore around trying to get into the safety of the barn, lunging here and there, trying to get into the garden lane. It was almost impossible to get into the garden without all 6 ewes following me.

Gradually things calmed down a bit. I called Dispatch back to let them know the dogs were gone from sight. I went back to gardening.

A little while later, I looked north on the main lane to the garden. There were the same two dogs again--this time between the two green sheep sheds, closer to me than to the flock on the pasture! I headed towards them, and watched helplessly as they ran down the lane towards the pastured ewes and lambs. Fortunately, they decided they didn't like me watching them, and headed off to the east instead of going further north to where 28 lambs and 9 ewes were huddled in terror near their llama. As I watched, one dog did a standing leap over the 4' fence. The other slipped through a small gap. They trotted east to the perimeter fence, and sailed over it. Then they ambled across the plowed field again and went into the woods.

What are my options? Chances are that the dogs will return. Their propensity for jumping means that confining the sheep really only reduces the amount of effort the dogs would need to slaughter them. I called Animal Control again. This time they sent out a sherrif officer to talk to me.

Basically, my best option is to hope that they don't come back. Basically, I have no recourse. I, personally (not a friend) could legally shoot the dogs IF I catch them in the act of injuring my livestock and then I'd still be opening myself up to a lawsuit. The "commonlaw" on this is "SSS"--Shoot, Shovel and SHHHH. Unfortunately, I don't have a gun. That, however, is easier to solve than the fact that even in the prime of my visual acuity I decidedly lacked the knack of aiming a gun at a target. It's best for everyone that I not have a gun.

If I could figure out whose they were, the sherrif could go talk to the owner. That's all. Talk. If I can catch them ("Did you try calling them? Try to get them to some to you and put a leash on them," suggested the helpful officer. Yeah, and get myself killed? I've been attacked by one dog half their bulk, and nearly lost the battle.) then the Humane Society can come pick them up.

Later, when E. came to do evening chores, we went out to the pasture to work on some fence. I have to say I was a little anxious about going out there, even with E. along. Two cunning, agile, vigorous dogs could be a formidable team to fight.

We did see them, ranging along the north side of the plowed field.

Later I went to talk to neighbors on the road east of here. One neighbor said someone had come by looking for them, but he didn't know the person, and didn't get any contact information. One said he'd seen the dogs fairly frequently along his fence ( the other side of the plowed field). So, at least they weren't feral dogs or dogs that had been dumped, as happens so often in the country. Someone wanted them back. That's a good thing.

So now what?

Really, all I can do is pray that the owner of the dogs will keep her little darlings more confined. Someone suggested I carry mace or pepper spray when working in the pasture...oh, good, one more thing to carry. But I probably will.

When I went to do the milking tonight, I found the cattle panel pen next to the barn leaning at a 45 degree angle. What the .....? Obviously, the dairly ewes at some point had thrown themselves at it trying to get to the safety of the barn. That would be about 1000 lbs. at a fairly high rate of speed--a lot of force. The base of one post was clearly rotten already...but still, it had felt strong to lean on.

So, I have to go buy a new post, dig out the old one, set the new one and rebuild the fence line. After spending several hours dealing with the dogs this afternoon. And live with the concern that they might attack again at any time. If they do, then basically all I can do is bury dead sheep (more time) and vet the living (more time and $$$).

If I could have a guardian dog, I wouldn't need to worry so much. But guardian dogs aren't generally well suited to such a small farm. They like a large territory...and will go over fences to patrol it. Then they would be vulnerable to traffic and Animal Control...and I would be vulnerable to a lawsuit.

When we begin as a community to get serious about Food Security, one thing we need to do is to address legal injustices in situations like this. We need to re-write laws to protect the livestock and their owners, not the pets/pet owners. Leash laws need to apply in the county as well as the city. And law enforcement needs to stop quibbling about whose jurisdiction a dog is in, and be able to just shoot the dog if it's threatening livestock. Why should a dog have rights, but not the sheep?

And you were wondering why lamb meat is so expensive...THIS is how I spend my time, not relaxing in the shade with some lemonade.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

ThingsTthat Flew By Too Fast For Comment

A cattle egret, solo, pure luminescent white, visited the farm one morning last week. I first saw it in the paddock north of the main sheep pen while I was doing chores. When I next looked, it was perched strikingly on the huge Japanese-style torii that separates the garden/sheep pen area from the wilder pasture. My understanding is that "torii" translates literally as "bird perch", so it is always a special blessing to see some magnificent large bird perched there.

While I was enjoying a rejuvenating, meditative solo soak in a friend's lovely outdoor hot tub late one night this past weekend, I saw a flash in the sky out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a plane, glimpsed through the trees that are midway to being leafed out. Then the next sighting had the garage as a background, and I knew it was my first firefly sighting of the season. I thought a minute. Yes, it's May already, and fireflies are part of that season. I always remember this by a vivid memory of my birthday barbeque many years ago...30, in fact...just two housemates, two babies, and myself. It was a very frugal barbecue, a little fire of twigs in a small hibachi, a tiny bit of something to grill. My abusive first husband had just left the household, taking our car and most of our money and leaving us with not much food. But we scrounged a quiet celebration of my 20th birthday anyhow. We lived in a little hamlet of about 6 houses out in the Flint Hills, and beyond the yard was the still blackness of a pasture, shimmering with millions of fireflies in the dark. Their beauty was a wonderful birthday gift, one that has lasted for 30 years and still going strong.

Fireflies in May, yes, but June bugs in APRIL?!? I was dismayed to be dive-bombed one night while milking. One of those annoyances that is so easily forgotten from year to year. They seem to come earlier every year...I remember being surprised by them in early May.

I received my first mosquito bite of the season on Monday, just a few days after we put goldfish in all the stock tanks to control them in the larvae stage. I don't worry much about West Nile Virus, because I'm pretty sure I had a mild case a few years ago. A definite flu-like thing that went around the neighborhood didn't seem to be contagious within household units but seemed more connected with those who spent a lot of time outside. But I don't like being buzzed or bitten. My rule with them, in the spirit of non-violence, is "If I don't see you and don't feel you, you can have my blood. You bother me, I bother you." I try to swat them calmly and matter-of-factly, rather than letting them provoke me to anger/revenge/murderous thoughts. They are, after all, just trying to feed their babies by sucking my blood, and they are, after all, God's children too.

Many songbird sightings recently. Orioles are warbling from the treelines, a favorite singer. The other day I walked into the galvanized shed, expecting to see one or two wrens as I often do--they are nesting somewhere there--and saw FOUR of the endearing little chestnut-colored birds, wagging their stubby tails in the air. Another day I encountered an indigo bunting and his mate on the fence long the west sheep lane, near the neighbor's row of trees. They prefer margin areas, where woods adjoin open lands. There is no bluer blue in nature, other than tropical butterflies. This morning a purple martin did loops around the martin house, then perched on top. I hope they decided to nest there this year. I have not seen the starlings there, who usually squat in the martins' condo.

And--this SORT of counts as flying--I was startled in the basement the other day when doing laundry, by something plopping out of the ceiling joists. A half-grown black rat snake landed on salting sheep skins, to both of our surprise. He wandered nonchalantly off in the direction of the water pump and filtration system. We saw baby rat snakes in the basement last fall, we've sen larder snake skins, but it has been many years since I've actually seen a large snake in the basement. I'm actually grateful for their presence, because we've had a few mice in the house lately. The snakes can go where the cat can't.

Perhaps the most amusing "flight" this time of year is that of the lambs. Some of them are now 2 months old, and they are very frisky and agile. They love to play "king of the mountain" on the big round bales...this time of year, I'm careful that the bales are spaced at least 6' from the fences, or the lambs will accidentally leap over the fences from the top of the bale. Then who knows what trouble will follow! Right now I have two bales that are near one another...lambs will clamber up one, then leap to the top of the other. Then, just like children, they'll do incredible flying leaps off the top, tumble and roll, bounce onto their feet, and do it all over again. They never seem to get hurt in the process. This morning, as we watched the flock run out to their new rotational grazing paddock, we saw one lamb leap far into the air as it ran and do the most incredible half-flip sideways, then land on its feet again. They are amazing acrobats.

And now I must fly myself, back out to the farm to work on a dozen vital projects.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hail, Full of Grace

The apprentices and I were just about done with this week's livestock seminar. As we walked towards the house, huge drops of rain randomly splatted at us from ominous dark clouds.

"What huge raindrops!" J. exclaimed.

"Mmmm. Looks like hailstones that melted before they got to the ground," I said. I hadn't ever given that much thought before. It just popped out of my mouth. We kept walking. It had been a hot, windy day, and the cold drops really didn't feel that bad. And there weren't very many of them.

J. headed off to the far side of the back yard to deliver an item that direction. The rest of us kept strolling towards the back door of the garage.

As I watched, the sparse random "raindrops" started slamming down even harder, and bouncing.

"Hail!" I shouted at J. She kept heading across the yard, oblivious to the stuff coming down.

"Take cover NOW" I shouted. I try to avoid directing the "command voice" that I use with the dogs towards people, but every now and then a direct order seems appropriate to elicit an immediate response.

By the time she ran to the garage door and turned to look back, hailstones--some of them more than an inch in diameter--were slamming into the ground HARD. Not very many of them, not enough to blanket the ground, but maybe 10-15 per square foot.

"Wow!" She said. "You weren't kidding when you said it was hail instead of raindrops."

How had I known it was melted hail, not rain? I thought about it. I had just learned to know the weather, its various moods and subtleties, like I would a person. I learned this not from books but from experience. The same way you get to know a friend or a pet spending countless hours with them, not necesarily talking but just doing your own stuff in close proximity.

Most folks live their lives separate from the weather. They may not even know it rained that day when they leave work at night...their building may have no windows. They get home, close the blinds, and turn on the TV--suddenly it's an autumn morning instead of a spring evening. On the other hand, I work out in the weather, regardless of whether I'm at the farm or driving the bus.

We watched in wonder for a couple minutes. Then it was done. We photographed a couple of the largest hailstones, looked at their beautiful ringed structure in the magnifying glass. And imagined being clobbered by them. Wow, that would hurt!

My thoughts kept returning to the lush, luxurious stand of spinach I HAD been mentally preparing to harvest tomorrow morning for Farmer's Market. It was surely shredded now. And the gorgeous green onions would be marred by white scars where each hailstone struck. J. and I looked at each other after the other apprentice left. We'd put a lot of work into the garden. What was left? We headed out there, prepared for the worst.

To our amazement, we couldn't find a single hole in a spinach leaf, nor a broken one, even though we could see the big hailstones on the mulch under the plants.

Miracles do happen. And grace, is.