Sunday, December 27, 2009

Thanksgiving is past, the solstice is behind us, and Christmas, the celebration of the coming of light and the Word, was the day before yesterday. Family and friends gathered here at the farm for Christmas Eve, and we went to Mom's on Christmas. The tables were laden with our favorites and our specialties, the cooks were busy for days, and a wonderful holiday was had by all.

Today, Sunday, has been a day to reflect on our blessings, catch up with ourselves, and for me, to spin and dye after the long holiday hiatus. The rhythm of the treadle, the feel of wool in my hands, and the dyepot's warmth bring me back to the rhythms of the farm.

Gracie needs a new home. Last week she started biting the sheep's legs until they lay down, and then she won't let them up. Ken or I have to go out and call her so the sheep can get up, but they are so traumatized they just lay there until we make them get up. The ewes could lose their lambs (if they haven't already). I am at a loss how to stop her behavior, and the sheep aren't able to back her off. So for now Gracie is in a stall, and I am trying to find her a home. Maybe someone with goats, or bigger sheep, or a shepherd that spends more time with his flock than do I. She is such a sweet dog--I want to figure out a way to make it work, but not at the cost of one of the ewes or spring's lamb crop.

We took a walk this afternoon just as the storm began to let up. The silvery sun and lightly falling snow gave the woods a magical look as skeins of honking geese flew high overhead. We saw dog or coyote tracks from earlier in the day, and a pair of red-tailed hawks wheeled and soared and called as we walked along the edge of the woods. As for our dogs, Sadie was up to her chest in snow, leaping and running and playing on her short mini Aussie legs, but Seamus soon had paws full of painful ice balls. (I need to trim the hair between his toes!) We turned for home early because of Seamus's discomfort, just in time to see one of the neighbor's dogs running back the way he had come. He was at least a mile from home. I hope he doesn't "visit" the sheep or chickens on one of his forays . . .

Once back home, we nudged the fire back to life, I fed the dogs, and Ken gathered eggs and fed the sheep. A family of barred owls called close by just as the sun set behind the naked trees.

Now that the days are beginning to lengthen, my thoughts wander toward spring and planting. . . . It's time to order seeds!

Monday, November 16, 2009

My uncle can be an unusually thoughtful giver of gifts, and recently he gave me one of the best housewarming gifts imaginable. We moved in to our 1895 brick farmhouse on the first day spring, March 21, in 2008, and we have become comfortable with the routines of the farm, the bounty of our woods and gardens, and the possibilities inherent in the largish kitchen. So last Saturday I was surprised when Bill called and told me he had a housewarming gift for us.

We met at the indoor market at Lincoln Square in Urbana, and he gave us a mixed case of wines from Sunsinger, one of the local wine specialty stores. Each bottle is different, and the case represents many different grapes, wine-making styles, and countries. When he handed me the box, he suggested I look up each wine on the internet and find out what the suggested food pairings might be.

On Sunday, we had the first of the wine-inspired dinners. Ken chose a Portuguese red from the box, Tuella, made from Douro grapes. It is a medium-light red, sort of a heavy Beaujolais. The first course was a warm pear-zucchini soup accented with thyme and garnished with mint. I served a chenin blanc that I had on hand with this, although most opted for cider or beer. This soup would be nice served cold, and I'll keep it in mind for next year at pear/zucchini time.

The entree was Portuguese-style pork roast braised with wine and vegetables (featuring the man carrot--photos later), and the meat was quite tasty and tender. My comments: I prefer to brown a roast first rather than braise it blanc, and the sauce looked like squid ink, so I probably won't make this one again. Mom brought Caesar salad, which was delicious as always, and I made a pear upside down cake for dessert. Bill, Ernie, Mom, Neil, Ken, and I enjoyed a very convivial and pleasant evening.

Things to think about for next time: Ask Ken to choose the wine a week before the event so I have more time to plan the menu and to source all foods locally. We might expand the guest list, too. . . . Thank you, Bill!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fall is the season of letting go. Letting go of the garden that produced so prolifically for our table and larder, of the lambs that we struggled to save in the spring (they will be on the table soon), the grass that sustained the lambs and their mothers throughout the summer, the summer birds, and everything green in the landscape.

Fall is also the season during which we make our preparations for the winter that is to come. On these glorious Indian summer days, we are freezing and canning the last of the fruit and vegetables still in storage, cutting wood to feed the hungry wood-burning insert in the parlor, and procuring the last of the hay and straw that will provide warm bedding and feed for the sheep through the winter. The windows are caulked, the doors weatherstripped, and the basement is insulated.

Other mammals are making their preparations too. The squirrels have cached black walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts in so many places that they won't find them all before the seeds germinate into young trees next spring. The deer are fat, the fawns are weaned, and the does and bucks are busy creating a new crop of fawns. The coyote and fox children are hunting and howling and barking like adults, although still with their parents.

Many of the summer birds have migrated, and those left behind are returning to our feeders as the abundance of summer wanes. The young hawks are hunting on their own, the young owls are hooting and calling "Who-cooks-for-you?" instead of screeching in their owlet voices.

I am in a similar season in my life. Letting go of many things, voluntarily and involuntarily, in preparation for the quiet activities of winter that bring forth the promise of spring and abundance of summer. My big worries grow small when I think about the cycle of which I am privileged to be a part and my responsibilities as steward to my self, my family, and the small holding that is Seven Sisters Farm.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The last week has provided us with beautiful weather for outside work. We've put a cord of wood in the shed, built a crib to hold it, and rebuilt the fence for the chicken yard (half of it was pulled out to make way for the drainfield).

The chickens are noisy, busy, happy, and really like their freedom, so I'm leaving the gate open. I often find them on the slope leading down to the river helping themselves to whatever bugs they can find. Yesterday, though, I had to run downstairs and outside to shoo them off the road twice--they've discovered the corn across the road in the neighbor's field. They also like to scratch in the beds near the house. They are laying 10 or 11 eggs per day, and I haven't found any outside the coop. The hens always manage to go back and lay them in the nesting boxes in the chicken chateau.

We still have 6 guineas, and they are now roosting in the tree just outside the chicken yard. The chickens, and especially the rooster, chase them away from the food. They are very handsome birds--now that they are maturing, their "bibs" are a lovely lavendar color when the sun shines on them.

Thanksgiving plans are going forward, and it promises to be a little lonesome--Alex and Neil will be in Wyoming with their grandfather. Mom will be in town, as will brother Jim and perhaps Bill and Ernie. I believe the boys will be home for Christmas, so we have that to look forward to. Seamus will be overjoyed--I'm a very poor substitute for his "boy."

Since the change from daylight savings, I've been able to spin in the evenings. My inventory is increasing gradually, and I hope to have enough yarn to justify renting a booth at Lincoln Square on one of the Saturdays before Christmas. I hope to dye some of the white in time to sell before Christmas as well. The holiday season is almost upon us!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wedding day (Halloween) dawns clear and chilly after several days of rain. Sadie is up first, ready for a quick peep outside and breakfast. Seamus comes down just late enough to get breakfast before his peep and then lounges in the dog run for while. As the morning light creeps in it becomes apparent that all six guineas have successfully spent the night out (again).

We all miss Ellie, but none of us more so than Seamus. I remember how they played when he first came to the farm. He and I were both sad that her attitude toward him changed once he matured. Perhaps she was too much like me (and vice versa).

In reflecting on her death, I'm led to believe that perhaps she was finally willing to pass her job of looking after me to Ken, or perhaps she was just tired of hurting, but she looked into my face with a peaceful, steady gaze as she slowly relaxed and slipped away. I will miss her for a very long time.

The sky is blue, the air is crisp, the leaves are gone, and the new grass is a richly colored emerald swath stretching across the width of our farm. Oh, how many hopes rest on that gorgeous field! (All we have to do is get it fenced by summer.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Eleanor Rose
June 2, 1994 - October 28, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eggs!! We're getting 6 a day now, chickens are running all over the farm, scratching in the mud where the new drain field was put in, and occasionally sneaking into the barn to look for spilled grain. Every now and then the guineas fly over the fence into the electrified sheep pasture. They can't figure out how to fly back out and run the fence and squawk and carry on until I rescue them. We still have all six. Watching the chickens scratch up tasty bits in the yard and pastures and listening to their convivial clucks brings such contentment!

Parts of the garden are still hanging on, I still have pears to attend to in Mom's fridge, and I'm spinning like crazy trying to get ready for the Spinners and Weavers' Guild show and sale (Friday and Saturday, November 6th and 7th). The outdoor tasks are piling up again, and that will probably continue for a while. The rains seem to come when I schedule time for outdoor tasks.

Farm Beginnings is going along well, Session 2 is over, although I have a few assignments to complete tomorrow before I can take off the rest of the week to do final prep for our Halloween wedding. It's hard to look forward to it because of the seemingly endless list of things to be checked off before the day. It will probably be an anticlimax for Ken and me in the way a big meal is an anticlimax for the cook. I hope our guests have a great time!!

Today it's cloudy, in the 60s, and we haven't yet had a serious frost. The weather has caused a very damp harvest with farmers losing money because their grain has to be dried at the elevator. Generally, the moisture content is too high for grain to be dried on the farm. I wish the farms were more diverse and everyone had more choices to make in the interest of their own profits and well-being. I wish I wish. Commodity farmers have to take whatever they're offered at the elevator, and it's the sole source of revenue for their farms and families. There is something to be said for feeding that grain to livestock that you then use to feed your family and community.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Link to a story about perennial grains. If you think about it, annual crop agriculture contributed to the failure of many civilizations: the city-state at Teotihuacan and the Anasazi in the American Southwest come to mind.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It's warm and sunny today, it was warm and sunny yesterday, and the day before that, and it's supposed to be nice tomorrow.

The orange ladybeetles, slayers of soybean aphids, are swarming at every door, window, nook, and cranny of the house. But what's a few bugs when you think of all those soybeans being saved from the voracious aphids! Maybe there are too many soybeans, and that's why there are too many aphids, and that's why we have to deal with chemicals in our water supply and biological controls biting the hell out of us and stinking up our houses when the crops are harvested. Layer upon layer . . .

Ranting aside, a lot of work got done this past weekend. Wood was cut, gates and feeders were constructed, and I found someone to fix the spinning wheel that Gram (my grandndmother) gave me!! I think it will really be fixed this time!

I've been spinning when I can but not enough to build up my inventory. The photo is some of my yarn undyed and some that I dyed at Natural Dye Day at Forest Glen County Park in September. The scarf will include all 8 colors: walnut, marigold, goldenrod, cosmos, indigo, marigold overdyed with indigo (green), pokeberry, and cochineal.

The septic system should be finished by Thursday, but it's supposed to rain. We'll see what happens. So far the chickens are having a great time hunting bugs in the open trenches. We're up to 5 eggs most days--now I need egg customers!!

Friday, October 16, 2009

This morning it's chilly, damp, and drizzly: runny-nose weather. The sheep are soggy, the the dogs are sleeping, the human's enthusiasm is low, but the chickens seem unaffected. They roil out of the chicken house when the doors open in the morning, looking for bugs and scratch and whatever they can find. They are eating, egg-laying machines!!

All six guineas are still accounted for. They arrived on Sunday and initially weren't sure they wanted to stay. I rounded them up Sunday night by covering the sleepy group with a sheet and put them in the coop. Next morning they weren't sure they wanted to come out! Now they go in and out like pros, but they sure eat a lot of chicken feed!!

It's time to put Moritz in with the girls, but I might wait until Sunday. It should dry up a little, and we can move the electro-net to make a new pasture for the lambs. The vet is coming Tuesday to "wether" the ram lambs, so I can start feeding them for market.

The trees are turning, and the leaves are wonderful hues of gold, red, and deep green. I love this time of year, as the harvest comes in, we put up the fruits and vegetables of our labors, and look forward to the feast of Thanksgiving. This year we'll gather at mom's house--it will be like old times to have her home, matriarch of our feast. But first we have to get through Halloween and the wedding!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The end of a long rainy day. . . . Tomorrow I'll make my final preparations for the first Farm Beginnings class, which happens day after tomorrow (Saturday). I'm spoiled--I'm not looking forward to spending all day Saturday indoors even though I do look forward to teaching the class.

More on the big ag front:

Monsanto Under Investigation For Antitrust Abuses

and from Tom Laskaway:

The Superweeds are Winning and Monsanto Blames Farmers

At the end of the article, Laskaway observes that it won't be the intellectuals who change ag. He goes on to quote a Rodale Institute report on superweeds:

  • Agriculturalists around the world are looking for better answers than have come so far from herbicide-focused efforts. They seek productive systems based on evolving local farmer wisdom. These deal with all pests—weeds included—as part of an approach integrating soil health, biodiversity, advanced understandings of biological interactions, and just enough steel to give crops the edge they need.
And, as Laskaway concludes, "That sounds about right."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Great post from Tom Laskaway on industrial beef and food safety. Follows up on a front-page article in the NYT this past Sunday. This is a big deal--local beef producers should be hearing from more potential customers soon. If my mom read it, she would never eat another hamburger.

Beautiful fall weather. Preserving in full swing. Only two and a half more boxes of pears (and 6 giant zucchinis) to go. Oh, and a few peppers to smoke and dry and hang in ristras.

The sky is so blue it feels like the West. Seamus and I are thinking of Alex, high school biology teacher in Gallup, New Mexico. Teach them to eat locally, Alex! Give them a fire in their bellies to raise their own food and food for their communities! Seamus and I miss you!

Friday, October 2, 2009

The leaves are beginning to turn, woodsmoke is in the air, and most of the perishables have been put by for the winter. From the frantic to the fat season, a harvest moon presides this weekend. Time to party, for the death of winter quickly approaches . . . Halloween is just around the corner.

The weather has changed--it's chilly and off-and-on rainy. Our dogwalks are lively and fast-paced to ward off the chill. The sheep are smug and snug in their woolly coats, and the chickens hide under and inside the chicken house more often now.

Sadie is sitting on my lap sucking my warmth as I write, Seamus is resting pensively next to us, and Ellie is downstairs on her blanket curled up in her inner bliss. So little of the outside world penetrates Ellie's failing senses. I miss young Ellie with her cheerful, bright greetings, her need to watch over me, and her unbounded enthusiasm. We are generally called to witness the frailty that slowly overtakes the dogs we love. Ellie is moving inexorably toward her own winter, and I will miss her terribly.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mad chickens. "You must stay in until I get some eggs!!" Chicken slavery, they think, I'm sure. A friend is delivering a few guineas this weekend, so everyone will have to stay in until the guineas get used to their new home anyway.

It's cool, rainy, and the autumnal equinox has come and gone. We are rising to dark mornings, and the day is slow dawning, much slower than in the summer. Daylight savings doesn't end until November 1, which is much too late. I would rather see dawn creeping over the eastern horizon when I rise.

The garden is ratty, and my enthusiasm is waning. Green beans, pears, tomatoes, and zucchini are all demanding, "Pick me!" "Can me." Freeze me!" "Preserve me with honey and spices!"

The duties of the harvest season call me. Perhaps I will find inspiration in the kitchen.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

It's been raining softly on and off all day. The new pasture south of the house is coming in emerald green and thick. I think Cory and Jim both found a few artifacts in the turned earth.

Chickens are traveling all over the farm now, but I find very few eggs in the nests. I might have to lock them up in the chicken yard again until they get in habit of laying in the chicken house. One adventurous hen stayed out all night for the last two nights--she must have roosted in the spruce tree next to the coop.

A black capped chickadee and a red breasted nuthatch are feeding in the tulip poplar out my window. I guess it's time to join them and take Seamus and Sadie for a walk.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


According to the local rag, clouds of soybean aphids are attacking people whenever they walk or bike outside. The first killing frost cannot come soon enough . . .

Problem pests and problem biological controls: Ain't industrial agriculture great!?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy chickens--found and secure.

The chickens came home to roost tonight. They weren't far away--under two spruce trees near their house.

Today the onslaught of the orange lady beetles began. The pirate bugs are probably not far behind. Biological controls? Now we need a deterrent so the biological controls won't chase us indoors during one of the most beautiful times of the year.
Happy Chickens.

Last week I attended the National Small Farms Conference, sponsored by the USDA, put on by UIUC Extension (thank you Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant), and held this year in Springfield, Illinois.

It was a great conference--lots of information on training new farmers, marketing strategies, and USDA/CSREES/NRCS programs and funding. I learned a lot, made some great connections, and it was extremely well run. I stayed at a great place in Springfield, Mansion View Inn and Suites, just across from the Governor's Mansion on 4th Street. I recommend it highly in all categories!

After attending the conference and listening to the many presentations and participants, I felt like the progress we're making in developing the support structures necessary for small, diversified farms and local, fresh, diversified food systems is indeed significant. And then on Saturday I heard an ad during a baseball game on the radio that reminded me that our opposition has really deep pockets and a vested interest in industrial farming.
"You hear a lot about sustainability these days. Sustainability is farmers growing higher yields of corn and soybeans and being able to feed their families and the world," sponsored by Monsanto or some similar agrigiant. Feed them what?? Junk food and bacteria-laden meat and dairy products produced in filthy plants here and overseas?? From animals confined to feedlots and fed antibiotics for their entire lives and fields that cannot produce anything without chemicals? Enough.

So on Sunday, we let the chickens out of their chicken yard for the first time. It was off-and-on rainy and mostly overcast, but they spread out all over the back yard making happy chicken noises and eating bugs, grass, and generally exploring unlimited new territory. Everyone was back in the chicken house by dark, but I'm not sure if eggs were laid out in the "territory." No new ones this morning, so I'll have to look around. And this morning when I looked for them after they'd been out for a few hours, there was no sign of the "happy chickens" . . . more on this mystery later.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I'm happy to announce that Edina and Sindy arrived yesterday! Edina, the mom, was a little the worse for wear, but she perked up
once she got off the trailer, drank some water, and ate some alfalfa/grass hay and a handful of corn.

Everyone in the group is looking pretty good. It's time to think about getting ready for breeding season . . .

Moritz is ready for the fun to begin!

Gracie, the good girl guardian of the sheep.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Yesterday's walk

More flowers for the list. I saw them on a short walk around the farm with the dogs.

White Snakeroot
Ageratina altissima (Eupatorium rugosum) Family: Aster (Asteraceae)
Blue Lettuce Lactuca floridana
Family: Aster (Asteraceae)
Great Blue Lobelia
Lobelia siphilitica Family: Bellflower (Campanulaceae)
Phytolacca americana Family: Pokeweed (Phytolaccaceae)
Yellow Ironweed Verbesina alternifolia Family: Aster (Asteraceae)
Prairie Ironweed Vernonia fasciculata Family: Aster (Asteraceae)
Tall Goldenrod Solidago canadensis (Solidago altissima) Family: Aster (Asteraceae)
Illinois Bundleflower Desmanthus illinoensis Mimosa family (Mimosaceae)

An egg!

Today one of our lovely young hens gave us our first egg!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Misty, overcast morn

The new sheep pasture should be planted today (many thanks to Cory). Cory also suggested we rent a DR brush mower for the tall weeds where it's too rough to mow with the tractor. Maybe renting it monthly through the fall and next summer would help us control the teasel and thistle. I would still like to have a scythe. The weedeater is dead to me, although Ken still wields it when he has the patience.

:) Two new black English Leicester ewes are coming tomorrow!!

:( We need a new septic system. The Ancient One has ceased to function. Fortunately, as of Saturday, only two humans will reside at Seven Sis, so we should be able to limp along until a new one can be put in. The idea of a cesspool in the pine trees as an emergency measure does not appeal, although I could go for an outhouse.

I can hear and see many birds from my aerie this morning--the air is absolutely still and their calls echo and float in the mist and haze. I saw a downy woodpecker on the feeder today, so I chose downy and hairy as my "two."

Pears! I need to wash and determine where to store three bushels of pears, which I picked on Sunday. Alternatively, I could sell them at the market along with wool yarn, roving, and some peppers. My produce, however, is neither pretty nor uninhabited by insect life.

Today's taxonomy lesson is courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab, Birds of America Online

Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens

Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Two named flowers

Courtesy of the Connecticut Botanical Society (

Woodland Sunflower

Helianthus divaricatus

This is a very common sunflower in partly shady places.

• Family: Aster (Asteraceae)
• Habitat: sparse woods, dry thickets
• Height: 2-6 feet
• Flower size: 1-1/2 to 3 inches across
• Flower color: yellow
• Flowering time: July to October
• Origin: native

Helianthus divaricatus

Jewelweed (Spotted Touch-me-not)
Impatiens capensis, Impatiens pallida

Jewelweed is an entertaining plant. The ripe seedpods pop open at a gentle touch, hence the name touch-me-not. Water drops bead up on the leaves, and a leaf held underwater has a silver sheen. There is also a species with yellow flowers, pale touch-me-not.

• Family: Balsam (Balsaminaceae)
• Habitat: moist shady areas
• Height: 2-5 feet
• Flower size: 1 to 1/2 inches long
• Flower color: orange
• Flowering time: July to September
• Origin: native

Impatiens capensis Impatiens capensis

Getting started

Getting started on a new writing project always brings on Introduction Block. There will be no introduction, no beginning, and no end.

Dog walk this morning, saw wild impatiens, lots of woodland sunflowers, and goldenrod. Today is sunny and a little hazy, and the air is full of the sound of crickets. Later the cicadas will begin their infield chatter. The dogs were happy with the unexpected attention, and we played with Gracie when we returned.

Resolution: Find common and taxonomic names for two living things each day.

Septic system is full--the laundromat is on the schedule for this afternoon. :(