Saturday, January 31, 2009

Good Morning!

It's going to be a busy day today with not much time to muse. I have a long meeting with the church vestry, and then we're getting a hay delivery in the afternoon. This evening we'll meet with our small group from church for our usual potluck and study time.
But I had to share a good picture of our morning alarm clock, Victor. I don't usually like to keep roosters around, mostly because of the noise. I don't blame them, it's what they do, but it's hard on the sleep patterns if they live too close to the house. Victor, however, sleeps out in the pasture in a tractor with his six hen friends, free ranging during the day. And aside from crowing, Victor also takes good care of those hens. The other chicken tribes roam around the property aimlessly in loose groups. But the Marans, under the leadership of Victor the Protector, stays together in a fairly tight knot. He warns of overhead hawk threats, and he signals when it's time to return to the tractor at night. As long as he behaves, he is a beautiful and stately addition to the farm. If he ever gets into the habit of trying to discipline humans, we will have to reconsider his living arrangement.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Nature or Nurture?

On the eve of a big entrepreneurial fiber business breakthrough, I pause and consider how in the heck I find myself here. I've been a secretary, a disk jocky, a natural childbirth educator and doula, an actor, a voiceover talent, a magazine copy editor, a certified Master Naturalist, a wife and mother, and more. I've worked at churches, medical schools, business colleges, stock brokerages, retail stores and community theatres. How on earth do I find myself now in Parker, TX raising chickens, alpacas and sheep?
It's in my blood.

Going through photos the other day, I stumbled on this picture of my dad and his older brother, probably taken at his Uncle Fred's farm sometime in the 30's. As a small child, I also got to visit Uncle Fred and Aunt Mabel who still lived on that farm in Wheatland, Wyoming, and I believe it was then that the die was cast. I immediately bonded with that simple life on the land, with home grown food on the table, and chickens scurrying across the yard. Same reason I own and have nearly worn out the first season of Little House on the Prairie on DVD. I long to live the simple life, guided by the simple principles that guide happy human existence--principles explained clearly in the Bible. The simple life is not always easy, as any farmer will tell you. One of the hardest things about it is keeping it simple. Our culture doesn't encourage us to let go of complicated trappings. But the daily task of winnowing the wheat from the chaff in my life, culling trash from treasure, is how I want to spend my days.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Weather or Not

Chores. Equal parts joy and challenge. Today, I looked out on a beautiful sight - yesterday's sleet and ice had changed in to a wonderful world of mist and rime. The air was cold, but still. And everybody was hungry. Overcoming the urge to curl up with a blanket and a hot cup of tea, I bundled up and ventured out. The sheep are always overjoyed to see me, bucking and cavorting like babies. The donkeys are the most vocal - braying a deafening, "Where have you been? Our trough is empty!" The alpacas are pretty patient, for the most part, except Moonstruck, who whines when he sees me like a three year old at Toys R Us. Of the chickens, only Victor makes much of a fuss, particularly on a foggy day when it's safer for them to stay cooped up.

Now the chores are done, and I think I will have that cup of tea.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ice, Ice, Baby

School is out today because of the ice covering the roads. Freezing rain fell most of the night, and we awoke to a shimmery landscape. Chores were interesting today because I had to spend a little more time getting gates and doors open which had frozen shut. The ice put a sparkly coating on everything that was exposed to the northwest wind last night. I'm not complaining, because I'd rather play on the ice than in the sweltering heat of September. That will come soon enough.

Smokey, on the other hand, doesn't appear to have ventured out of her cat door in the barn. If I know her, she's curled up in a chair on a lambskin rug.

TxOLAN Spinning is Done

I'm very privileged to be judging fleece samples for the third year in a row for the TxOLAN Spectacular Alpaca Show, which will be held at the Will Rogers Coliseum on Valentine's Day weekend. As usual, there were lots of beautiful entries, and judging is never easy. My fellow judge, Rita, and I evaluate each 2 ounce sample of raw fleece, card or comb it (huacaya is carded, suri is combed), spin a small sample, wash and dry the sample, and then evaluate the yarn. It's a bit of a project when you consider that there are over 118 entries this year. Our goal with this competition is to educate breeders about what appeals to handspinners in alpaca fiber. We want to reward the breeders who produce fleece that will be appealing and marketable to folks who make their own alpaca yarn from scratch. Ribbons are awarded. Celebration erupts. And I get to put my hands in some really exceptional fiber. Alpacas compete in lots of different classes: confirmation, halter and obstacles, and a fleece show, where whole raw fleeces are judged. I'm glad I just did the Spin-Off judging.

All this judging and spinning took place in the Red Barn, and was studiously overseen by Smokey the Barn Cat. But sometimes the action gets a little repetitive, and she dozes. But she's great company.

If you're free February 13-15, jog over to Ft. Worth and check out hundreds of gorgeous alpacas, and see who came away winners in the Spin-Off Competition.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Susan Gibbs: Pioneer Woman

Today, I had the pleasure and privilege to meet with the lady who invented the fiber CSA: Susan Gibbs. Susan and her family own and operate both the Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm and the Hudson Valley Fiber Farm. She has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, on Etsy, Ravelry, to name just a few places. She is in Texas briefly, working on a book about her farming adventures. (I'll let you know when it's available, and you must go out and buy it, 'k?)

I took advantage of her close proximity to meet her at a Ft. Worth Barnes and Noble and pick her brain about how to make a fiber CSA work here at Jacob's Reward. OK. I begged, and she was kind enough to share the wealth of her knowledge and experience.

Susan is warm, generous, and insightful, and we hit it off immediately. She's the kind of gal who feels like an old friend after just a brief chat. And she really knows her stuff. She's something of a hero to me, having pioneered this very innovative way to make a successful business out of her love of fiber and shepherding. I came away from our meeting with a long list of action items, with a renewed zeal and energy, and tons of confidence that what we feel called to devote our lives to is a Very Good Thing.

Thank you, Susan. Have a safe trip back to Massachusetts. I cannot tell you how much you helped me today!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Going Green

Wasn't I just extolling the pleasures of egg collecting? Today, after months of waiting, one of my Ameraucana chickens finally matured to the point of laying. I may have startled her with my squeal - but she was just emerging from the nest box and, there it was. A lovely olive colored egg. I get the special clear plastic egg cartons to show off all my beauties - all the different colors - and now, my customers are really getting a treat. Once again, I'm dumbstruck by the beauty of creation.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Meteorological Whiplash

That's Texas for you. In the morning you're busting ice in the sheep's water bucket, and by afternoon, you're doing chores in a t-shirt. It was a beautiful day, once it started warming up. Blue skies and a soft breeze. I start thinking about doing things like finally getting the whole garden weeded and ready for some heirloom veggie seeds. Or re-fencing that ratty stretch along the creek pen. But there is so much to do inside as well. Tomorrow I'll be visited by a gal who found me through a Google search (bless you, Google). She wants to learn to use a drop spindle, so we'll sit in the Little Red Barn and play with wool. Sounds like a great way to start a Friday morning.

In farm tech news, I got a new camera AND a new MP3 player. So I'm wired for sound, and ready to shoot some great photos. (Lucy posed above for one of the first photos with the new Canon.) Wish I could come up with a great high-tech way to deal with the manure. Until then, it's just me and my trusty janitor pan.

Hmm. Can't leave you with that nasty visual. Hang on - Shadrach want's to say hi. Don't be shy, Shad - give us a kiss!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Omelet, Anyone?

I never get tired of checking the nest boxes for little treasures. Here's what I collected by midday today. The different breeds of hens lay different shades of brown eggs - yellowish brown, pinkish brown, tan. You can see the Marans hen is a faithful contributor - her chocolatey speckled egg is in the middle. Tastes like a regular egg ...or does it? Yum.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Romping on a Winter Afternoon

Action in the pasture got my attention and I ran out to capture a few seconds of the 'paca boys romping around. Unfortunately, I shut off the camera and went back inside (it's COLD) before the herd really got moving. But you'll get a taste of the fun they were having. Every once in a while, you just have to blow out the carburetor...

You're kidding me, I just got those UP!

It's cold and windy today, but, call me crazy, I'm feeling a certain pressure to get the Christmas decorations down.

We live kind of out in the country, and that allows us plenty of freedom from homeowners' associations, and the attendant Yard Nazis. That's good. On the other hand, it allows allows us to get behind on socially acceptable timetables for getting Christmas decorations put away. So I missed some surprise warm days and have waited until it's a bit nippy out to get the deed done.

Fine. Down they come. Brrrr....

Sheep Drencher, by Pampered Chef

Just what is this thing? Many people use it to press cookie dough onto a cookie sheet in fanciful shapes.

Not me.

You know me better than that. The other day, when I had a sheep bloat (his stomach inflated like a beachball) from an accidental overfeeding, my specialized livestock equipment went into action. Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep says that one of the best ways to treat this potentially deadly situation is to administer a slurry of water, vegetable oil and baking soda. Now, sheep won't drink this voluntarily (can you blame them?) so it has to be forced, and better sooner than later. Thinking quickly, I grabbed the tool that seemed the best way to get this life-saving elixer into my reluctant patient. You got it, the expensive Pampered Chef cookie press. I don't have photos of the experience, unfortunately - my hands were quite full - but I'm happy to report that the operation was a success. Zacchaeus is back to his old self, and we are all very relieved. And the cookie press is moving from the baking tools drawer, where it never saw the light of day, out to the sheep first aid kit, where it is worth its weight in gold.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Marans are Laying, the Marans are Laying!

This is the part I love - I've raised these chickens from babies, coddled them, housed them, fed and watered them for months, and finally, they begin to give back. Today during morning chores, I found the first egg from the group of 6 Maran hens, and their attendant rooster, Victor. This "tribe" has been free ranging during the day, thanks to the door DH cut in the side of their pasture tractor, so I can't swear that some eggs aren't laying out in the brush somewhere. But, this egg was laid in the nest box of the tractor for me to find on my morning rounds. It feels great. I may keep them shut up for a day or so to see whether there are more girls laying than just this one.

This past summer we went through quite a dry spell with very few eggs. The oldest group was moulting and the "teenagers" in the front coup weren't quite old enough, so my customers had to do without Jacob's Reward eggs for a while. But things are turning around.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Our Chicken Tribes

Over the last couple of years, our chickens have come in little bunches. The first bunch was brooded in the house--raised from day-old chicks until they were old enough to live outside. This little group came from the feed store: 5 Barred Rocks, 2 Ameraucanas (Leah and Rachel), and a silly Rhode Island Red (Lydia). The Barred Rocks looked too much alike to name individually, but I called them all Deborah. We also bought 2 layers from friends - one Barred Rock and one RIR--Mary and Martha. Over time, we lost a few to predators and natural causes - Mary passed on in her sleep one night. So this little group is now five gals who live in their own chicken coop/stall in the barn. Through a little door in the coop they leave in the morning to free range and then return at night to sleep. I learned the hard way that the little door must be faithfully latched at night, or predators can come and wreak havoc.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Shed is Done

It only took 2 years, but the shed we started two winters ago is finished. Our neighbor may no longer deride us for having a tacky outbuilding close to the road. I still need to get the leftover building materials out of there and lay down some pallets in one half of the shed, so that we can store some hay under there. Then maybe I won't have to spend time and energy going to the feed store once or twice a week for three or four bales of hay. Not very efficient. Feed storage is an ongoing challenge that needs to be addressed this year.

All in good time, my dear. All in good time.


Hold the presses, it's a new blog post. Seems like I let the entire calendar year of 2008 get by without a single blog post. OK, that's got to change.

The farm business plan continues to evolve - if not in physical reality, at least in my brain. I guess a bunch of stuff happened last year, and I'll try to highlight them as the urge strikes, but I'm not going to vow to run a chronological re-cap of the year because that, well, was less than successful in 2007.

So, fresh start, new year, new posts, new photos. As the Spirit leads - and let's see if we can't unjam this bottleneck.

OK. Today we had a short blast of winterish weather. 32 degrees and steady misty-rain. I let the chickens out because I hoped they'd use their little pea brains, plus survival instinct, to decided when to stay out and when to pop back under the cover of their respective shelters. Some did stay dry, but others got wet as drowned rats. I hope they don't freeze or catch cold overnight. They sleep in a pile, so maybe they'll be warm enough. I worry about my critters - sometimes too much, sometimes not enough. It's part of the learning curve and it takes a lot of energy.

Right now, I'm embarking on the big Spin-Off judging for the regional alpaca show to be held in Ft. Worth in February. I have a lot of samples to spin and judge in the next couple of weeks, which means lots of time in the Red Barn. That's not a bad thing.

Also working on developing something like Susan is doing with her fiber farm on the island of Martha's Vineyard--a fiber CSA (community supported agriculture) where she pre-sells shares of her wool harvest. I know that could work here at Jacob's Reward. Got to do some planning.

Nothing but potential around here - fiber and felt in the barn, empty garden waiting to be planted, sheep and alpacas in the pasture growing fresh fleece. Life is good, if a little damp and cold right now.