Ok, so I’ve gotten a bit behind on writing here. A symptom of the season. Spring is our busiest season and as the weather changes we find ourselves slammed with a hundred things to do at once. It is both exciting and overwhelming. I will tell you a bit about what’s been going on around here.
March was full of lions and lambs this year. Lions came in the form of a series of snow storms, which are unusual for us this time of year. The heaviest storm in the first week of March left us without electricity for three days. We carried our young chicks in several large bins over to our neighbor’s house to keep warm by the woodstove. We lost a batch of eggs in the incubators, and the turkeys stopped laying for almost the entire month of March because of the cold. It was as if February and March traded places this year. Still, we were thankful that we got through as well as we did, always reminded that things like electricity and incubators are conveniences that allow us to cheat a little and that in reality nature’s way is best. There is nothing like farming to teach the valuable lesson that I am not in control of the situation and should always be grateful–rather than prideful–when things turn out well. While I will continue to use my incubators, I have been putting more trust in broody hens.
In the midst of our March lions, all of this year’s lambs were born. Little bouncing bundles of joy. They are amazingly hardy creatures, kept warm by their wool coats that they already have when they are born, and bellies full of milk. Sheep’s milk is richer than cows’ milk and it is amazing how fast the lambs grow. Each lamb will have to prove itself strong enough to live, but we put that thought out of our mind and just enjoy watching the beautiful little creatures bounding about the pasture in the evenings.
I spend a lot of time with sheep this time of year. In my “spare” time between planting the garden and managing the poultry, I am out shearing flocks for other people. It is hard work, but I have a particular fondness for sheep, and I love seeing beautiful fleeces fall away from the animal as I shear and hearing what special project the shepherd has in mind for the wool.
Well, it snowed right up to the last week of March and then April arrived and declared spring with all its glory. Our newly planted orchard is blooming with promise, and the pastures have grown tall and lush. At long last we were able to set up our paddocks, dividing the larger fields into sections with portable electric fencing, and move the sheep and cows back out on the grass. The animals are thrilled, of course, and we are happy to see them fattening up and glowing with health. It’s also nice to not have to be feeding expensive hay every day anymore. I have a good feeling about this year. Over the last couple of years we have tried to learn all we can about good pasture management. Books can take you only so far. Mentorship from more experienced graziers has proven invaluable. And over the past year we have participated in a program offered by Holistic Management International that has been a fantastic experience. It is exciting to see the health of the animals, the pastures, and the land improve as we put what we’ve learned into practice. Our farm may be small, but that is all the more reason to maximize health and productivity, utilizing the land to it’s full potential.
Oh, and I can’t forget to tell you that we’ve just processed our first batch of pastured chickens for the year! We are pleased to be able to offer you these fine birds for your table, as well as a plentiful abundance of eggs from our free-ranging hens. Stop on by the farm and say hello.
Even though it is technically still winter, this month has been full of anticipation and a feeling of urgency. Signs of spring are beginning to appear all around, lighting a fire under me and calling me out of my winter daydream to action.
It’s been a rather hectic month, actually. It feels like spring is arriving a little early this year. A few of the turkeys and geese started laying earlier than usual prompting me to dust off the incubators. Our first little goslings of the year, who normally don’t arrive until Easter time, are already chirping in the brooder as I write this. They are not alone, since our first boxes of mail-order chicks for the year have also arrived this month. There is a litter of roly-poly baby pigs in the barn, and our ewes are growing wider and wider by the day as we get closer to lambing time. We continue to start seeds for the garden and have had to spend at least one afternoon a week potting up seedlings.
Both early spring and fall are opportune times to make improvements to the pastures. So this month we have been ordering seed and planning out our grazing strategies with the help of a friend who owns an organic, grass-fed dairy. Our pastures have a long way to go, but we are hoping that through careful management we can bring them to bountiful production and reduce the amount of hay we need to buy. The sheep and pigs have been our partners in reclaiming our back pasture from decades of overgrowth. Last summer the sheep did their part in reducing brambles and invasive weeds, followed by the pigs who rooted out stubborn ailanthus saplings and have neatly tilled up the soil for us in preparation for a planting of forage oats this spring.
Kevin, with help from our wonderful neighbor, Bob, has been clearing a path from our driveway through the underbrush and around to the barn so we can stop driving trucks across the front “lawn” as our barn construction project continues. Once the traffic has been re-routed, I am eager to repair the damage and once again sow pasture grasses all around the house. Cows and sheep make such wonderful lawn mowers/compost bins, and it would be terrible to waste all that feed that can be converted to milk and wool and meat by chopping it down with a gas-powered mower. In colonial Virginia, it was common practice to just turn your livestock loose to fend for themselves, rounding them up as needed, and fencing animals out of gardens and crop fields rather than fencing the animals in. We don’t have that luxury (although I think that method must have been problematic at times!) so we must make the best use of the space we are privileged to farm.
February feels a little like a “lean” time, although mostly just in our heads. We continue to enjoy frozen and canned fruits and vegetables that we put up last summer, and even harvest some hardy spinach from the garden, but the brilliant green seedlings on the plant shelves make us hunger for the fresh produce to come. I was tempted to eat my broccoli plants when they were only two inches tall, but decided to delay gratification. The sheep and cows, too, munch their hay pretty contentedly, but I see them eyeing the tender green grass that is beginning to peek out of the ground. Like me, though, then must delay gratification and allow the grasses to get a good start before they dive in. One of the most important parts of pasture management is allowing them to rest and recover. Better health for the pastures will result in better health for the animals, and the rest of us too.
Here it is, the end of January. When asked what is my favorite time of year, I always think of the Greek fairytale about the Twelve Months. This is a story I’ve told to children many times around the fire. Because she cannot complain and finds something to be grateful for in each month of the year, a poor widow woman is gifted by the Twelve Months with the money she needs to raise her five children. It reminds me to be grateful for the changes of the seasons and to enjoy the work there is to do right now, because soon enough it will be time to do something else.
So, these are some things I like about January. Is a time of rest. A time for telling stories in the evenings, for spinning wool, for reflecting on our summer’s labors and considering how we might improve our work in the coming year. One thing I love about farming is how I get a chance to start over each year. There are still critters to feed and milk in the mornings and evenings, but with winter the earth goes dormant and I have a chance to collect my wits before launching into a new growing season.
January is when I plan my kitchen garden. I go through my collection of seeds and decide what I need to procure. The 18th century farmwife would save nearly all of her own seeds from year to year, perhaps trading with neighbors for something needed, or perhaps even purchasing a few from a shop in town. Today, I am bedazzled by all of the colorful photos of tempting vegetables and fruits in the catalogs that begin appearing in my mailbox in early winter. My favorite seed companies are Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, the Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and D. Landreth Seed Company (“Purveyors of Fine Seed Since 1784!), all good sources for non-genetically engineered, heirloom seeds. I do save some of my seeds from year to year, but I confess the catalogs do provide great entertainment and the opportunity to try new things in the garden each year. In keeping up traditions, two dear friends (who also happen to be neighbors) and I gathered at my kitchen table this month to swap seeds. Later in the year, we will likely swap seedlings and produce as well.
John Randolph (1727-1784), a resident of Williamsburg, Virginia wrote in his Treatise on Gardening, “January: Prepare, hot beds for Cucumbers; as little can be done this month in a garden, I would advise the preparing of your dung [compost], and carrying it to your beds, that it may be ready to be spread on in February.” I heed his advice and do little to disturb the soil in my garden this time of year. The beds lie under blankets of mulch, or hardy cover crops that provide fresh greens for our table throughout most of the winter. But oh! If John Randolph could see the shelves hung with florescent lights where I am able to start some seedlings during the dead of winter before moving them out to the cold frame. I think he would be impressed.
As little green leaves appear, I begin to hanker for the warmth of spring, but I must stop myself and remember to savor this season while it is here. Soon enough the winter mud will dry and the days will grow long and busy, and I will find myself looking forward again to the long quiet evenings of winter.
You could say that I grew up in the 18th century, and now, along with my husband and children, I am farming in the 21st. This new year, I would like to share with you a little of what goes on in our little world on the farm, where we try to make use of the best that the past and the present have to offer.