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Winter makes you laugh a little slower…

I’ve been remiss in blogging as winter settles in here in the piedmont. Part of that is starting on the hard part of work with my shrink and desensitizing myself to all the terrible memories I brought home from the war in the hopes of achieving something more like sanity. It’s tiring. Part of it is that, well, fall and winter don’t bring a heck of a lot of news, especially when compared to the dramas of spring and summer.

Still, there’s a few noteworthy things going on! For instance, we have Mr Piggy Bank the teeny tiny boar and Maggie the tiny pig staying. They may end up being here forever, or may go home if their previous person gets her fences pig-proofed by hiring the best Board On Board Fence Contractor. Whichever way it goes, they are delightful to have around, and also adorable, and some people also decide to bolster their roofs with help from residential remodeling houston tx to prepare for the winters with companies as http://www.palmbeachroofingexpert.com/tequesta-roofing/.

Two small pigs cuddling in the sun. Closest to the camera is the tiny boar, who is about 10 inches tall standing, or half the size of the sow. He's golden with black spots, she is white with black spots.

The sheep are all getting woolier every day. I give them little pep talks about growing nice fleeces. Most interestingly, Jane the Soay ewe is growing in her fleece with a substantial amount of white sprinkled in it, like roaning on a horse or goat, so yarn spun from her wool will be naturally heathered.

There’s even a little excitement in the vegetable world. While the einkorn wheat has gone dormant for the winter, the pregnant onions that I’m getting established into a permanent onion patch are still growing like the blazes.

Onion tops ranging between two and six inches tall growing in thick, enthusiastic clumps.

I broke off the tips of some of the tallest greens for us to taste and they’re amazing, sweet and spicy and flavorful. I can’t wait to actually try a couple onions next summer, although large harvests will have to wait a while unless the onions go really nuts. Pregnant onions are an old, old variety grown before the advent of easy to purchase seeds. The large onions will spawn young onions, which will grow into large onions the next year and split off into their own children. They can be harvested at either stage, as long as you leave enough in the ground to propagate.

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The garlic got planted a couple months later than onions, but is coming up anyway in its bed of composted rabbit manure.

Small, thick green shoots poking up through what looks like dark fine soil with a few recognizable globes of poo.

This is nothing fancy, just the California Early Soft Neck garlic you find in grocery stores. In fact, it’s cloves from a grocery store bulb, as I thought I should experiment with cheap garlic before I try growing one of the more fiddly heritage varieties. Still, freshness makes a serious difference, and a bulb of garlic dug five minutes ago has a far superior flavor to one that’s been stored, as we learned after managing to grow one bulb on our first try. As it turns out, the feed store was setting us up for failure selling seed garlic in spring. This really is a fall-planted crop, and in summer will be adding its deliciousness to home-cooked meals.

Things I don’t have pictures of include the expanded rabbitry. The colony is a no-go right now, having had ducks move in this past summer (long story, but not on purpose). Duck feces in the soil are not compatible with successfully raising litters of rabbits, so right now I’m working with a standard caged system and working on building tractors so rabbits can move around more and do a little grazing while the colony gets dug out and planted and rested in the hopes that I can return rabbits to it in spring or summer. Meanwhile two of my friends hooked me up with breeding stock, and there will be purebred Silver Foxes for pelts and meat starting this winter. Which means I need to get on tanning the hides I’ve already accumulated!

Meanwhile of course, late fall/early winter Virginia means the weather is all over the place and my mysterious chronic pain condition and migraines are complaining about it. I spend a lot of time sitting in the sun with the goats and sheep and pigs, soaking up the last of the warmth and enjoying my little peaceable kingdom.

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Let me just wax lyrical for a bit…

Sometimes, at night, I go sit outside and look at my sheep. I generally take a length of acrylic fleece to use as a shepherd’s plaid what with I haven’t had the chance to make one from my sheep. Maybe in 2017. There is something magical about nights at the onset of winter here in the Piedmont, when the cold breaks the hazy humidity of summer. There’s so many stars in the sky, and if I trouble myself to go out back of the barn on a moonless night where the glare from our “safety light” doesn’t reach, I can see the Milky Way.

Anyway. I sit, wrapped in my fleece, and I watch my sheep sleep with Xita beside me. It’s magical. Times like that, you can almost feel a kinship with pre-industrial shepherds. Indeed, when it’s just the Soays out sleeping next to the hay bale, I can almost feel the first Neolithic shepherds beside me. THey’d probably appreciate modern touches like acrylic fleece and my very fine German Shepherd. Some things have changed very little over the millenia, and shepherds and farmers appreciate a good dog and warm, durable fabric.

It’s on nights like that as much as on slaughter days that I remember why I have animals, why I eat the meat they produce and take their manure to grow vegetables. It’s a very fundamental connection to the land and to the past that nourishes the soul along with the body.

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And the Windows of heaven were opened.

I’m late blogging today courtesy of a combination of an unnamed monsoon followed by the outer edges of Hurricane Joaquin.

A black rubber two quart feed pan full of water. Tethys the pig side eyes it.
The monsoon filled two quart feed pans in just a couple hours.

The heavy storm a few nights ago means Joaquin is dumping water on ground already saturated. In many areas of my pasture that’s not much of a problem, since pigs and plant roots have created enough soil permeability to allow drainage. In other areas, however, there are pools of liquid mud just waiting to try to suck my boots off. It’s not fun.

Hurricane prep also required us to get the grain out of the feed stall and into the shed so we could open both stalls up for the goats, sheep, and pigs to shelter in. Having both stalls open ensures that large pushy animals like Queen May and Sanglant can’t keep the smaller, more retiring animals out of the barn. The rabbit colony needed a new roof and a wall on the east side, and the piglets needed their house moved and stuffed with straw so they could stay warm and dry.

In the middle of all this the goats broke into the feed stall before it was prepped and ate approximately 25 pounds of grain, leading to horrifying diarrhea and the early attempts at exploration by the juvenile poultry who’d been living happily in that stall.

Never a dull moment, especially where goats are concerned. So the ruminants are on a hay-only diet for a couple days while hurricane Joaquin brings cold, wind, and wet. In the house, we’ve filled water containers and located flashlights and batteries. Now we just wait to see whether or not the power will stay on until Tuesday, when current weather predictions show the last of the storm leaving our area and the sun returning for the first time in a week and a half.

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Things I do when I’m not farming: knitting

Mostly I’m putting this here as a blog post in the hope that it will inspire a vague sense of accountability and I’ll actually finish this thing. You see, I’m one of those knitters who’s really good at starting projects but really terrible at finishing them, which leads to a certain accumulation of forlorn unfinished objects.

My latest project is a shawl, from the “A Handsome Triangle” pattern in Victorian Lace Today. Except that I hate knitting with lace weight yarn, aka “thread” and also shawls knit with tiny yarn are very pretty but basically useless for staying warm. So instead I’m knitting it from heathered brown wool, in fact Fisherman’s Wool from Lion. It won’t win awards for the delicate beauty of the stitches and pattern, but it will be a durable, warm, functional garment. The lace pattern is a little too fancy for me to call it Shaker-esque in its simple, functional beauty. But my preference is definitely for items of clothing that prioritize durability and functionality over, say, the ability to pull the whole thing through a woman’s wedding ring. Much like my beloved Soay sheep, this is a shawl meant to endure and be good at its intended function rather than being flashy and high-maintenance.

Oh wait, you wanted a picture? Here’s part of one half, all stretched out so you can see the lace pattern.

Dark brown sweater-weight wool, knitted into a pattern reminiscent of over-lapping leaves on a vine.

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Let’s call this Training Week. Pigs learn fast.

It’s very much fun to be doing actual training with the critters. Pigs learn really fast, and Tethys is eating cookies within touching distance already, so I’ve moved on to teaching her to recognize her name. This is an easy process: I say her name, then I give her a cookie. She’ll probably have it down by this weekend.

The head of a pig, obviously quite close to the camera. She is mostly black with a white stripe on the left side of her neck and another right between her eyes. Since this is the alt text, we'll pretend the picture isn't a little blurry.
Tethys eating a cookie right by my feet!

Janus is taking a little longer learning to approach, but he’s getting there! The difficulty of pigs of course course is that while they’re smart as hell, they’re not naturally inclined to listen to human voices and watch human faces like dogs are. Selective breeding makes an enormous difference in animal behavior, really, and nothing will make that more clear than playing training games.

The Soays present an even bigger conundrum: I’m still looking for an easy reward that they find meaningful. The ewes Lady Jane and Gwendolyn are easy: they want me to go away. So I walk up as close as they’ll let me, stand for a moment, tell them “Mamogion da!” (Good ewes! In Welsh) and then turn and walk away. I’ve successfully halved their flight distance using this and grain. The wethers however are much more human-social, yet not big on cookies.

The back of a little brown sheep's head, showing off the elegant sweep of his black horns. He is eating pelleted grain ration from a black rubber dish and studiously ignoring the animal cracker in the center of the same dish.
Reuben says cookies just aren’t that interesting.

They are enthused about the little bit of sweet feed they get, but it’s really difficult to use that in discrete chunks as a reward. I may end up making little wodges of oats stuck together with molasses and baked dry to try. Even if the sheep don’t eat them, the goats most certainly will, so they won’t go to waste!

Meanwhile Sebastian is learning to target and touch my open hand, which is a necessary first step to teaching him to lead with a halter instead of his current behavior when I try to lead him, which involves bracing his legs and becoming immovable.

A mahogany red goat with black horns, black stripes on his face and white poll, ears, and nose stretches up to touch my my hand with his nose.
Sebastian will target all day if your hand smells of cookies.

Sebastian has really mastered cookie Zen, which means he gets to move on to things like targeting and learning to wear a harness. His half-brother Sanglant is still really struggling with the idea that to get the cookie, you shouldn’t try to get the cookie. Every fiber of Sanglant’s curious and determined goat brain wants to treat my hand like a puzzle toy, but he’s finally beginning to back off and accept that only through patient waiting will cookies come to him.

The one thing I don’t have pics of, because I need to enlist my husband, is teaching Ella the American Blackbelly ewe to do classic obedience healing. She’s been offering it voluntarily for a few months when I have the grain scoop, so I figured why not work on putting it on cue? Hopefully I can get pics in time for Friday’s post!

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Like God’s Own Mercy

O Brother, Where Art Thou is one of my favorite movies, and it gives the devil the best line in it. He has the heroes apparently cornered, and out behind to rain. “Sweet, summer rain,” he says. “Like God’s own mercy.” As I’m writing this, my little corner of the world has just wrapped up three or four weeks without rain. Things were getting scary dry out there except under the heaviest of layers of fallen leaves under complete tree canopies, where the sunlight never touches except in winter.

We lost an expected month of grazing to the hot, dry weather. We rotate the sheep, goats, and now pigs through three different areas, so that each one gets at least four weeks to recover between bouts of grazing. With the lack of rain, however, the next one in line couldn’t recover in time, so we’ve moved them to what will effectively be their winter dry lot already. They’re not complaining since they have plenty of hay and the area is well-shaded by oaks and the barn, allowing them to beat the August heat. I’d have been happier with them getting some last green forage in, though.

After the weeks and weeks of heat, baking the previous topsoil to dust after the more tender ground covers died, this rain really does feel like mercy. I’m not ashamed, just mildly sheepish, to admit I went outside to let it fall on my skin and listen to what I swear was a collective sigh of relief from the world at large. I swear the trees were smiling if you watched closely enough, and maybe the beech out front will decide to hang onto those last few leaves.

I’m looking forward to seeing one last burst of green before the summer ends, and to finally getting my fall crops into damp, welcoming soil. I’m happy I won’t have to water the grounding rods for the electric fence for at least a few days (the forecast says yet more rain! It feels slightly decadent). I’m looking forward to seeing the pigs wallow in mud instead of taking dust baths, leaving what my friend Elisha calls “mud angels” behind.

The fall rains are such a nice way to round out the year, at least until the weather gets cold and things start feeling clammy. It’s one last burst of activity from people and plants alike before we enter the long dark cold of winter. It’s the last opportunity for animals to fatten themselves up, something less urgent for my domesticated livestock than it is for rabbits, birds, and squirrels…yet the impulse is still there. The goats are growing longer, thicker coats. The hair sheep are getting woolly, and the wool sheep are getting woolier.

Tomorrow will be soon enough to break out the seeds and the trowel, though. For tonight, I’m happy to lie back and listen to the sound of mercy.

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Hard choices

Last week my beloved Thea started getting violent with the other ruminants. Not in the usual way of a swing of the head or a light bump, but actively trying to harm the others, culminating in an earnest attempt to hurt or kill Ferrington.

There’s a lot I can cope with, and scuffles for rank in the herd are not unusual, but this was something beyond the usual scuffles. So I made the difficult decision to place Thea in a new home, and sent Frankie with her so she’d have a buddy.

I still feel like I need a good cry. I loved them both, and I can’t even stand to look at pictures of them right now. Luckily Gwyn has adapted to the loss of her mother just fine, because I think if she were crying I really would be, too.

There’s a little bit of happiness, though, in that two potbelly pigs have come to stay and be working pigs to till the gardens and learn tricks.

On the left, a solid black pig about two feet high. On the right, a black pig with a white stripe between her eyes, white trotters, and a white stripe on one side of her neck. They are VERY fat, and also frothing at the mouth.
Apparently stressed pigs foam at the mouth. I did not know this.

The pigs don’t have names yet (I need to consult with my animal naming crew on Patreon![1]) and need to lose some weight, but they’re settling in well and finding the shady places, food, and water. The solid black pig is a barrow, a male pig neutered before puberty. The one with white is a gilt, a female pig who has never had a litter of piglets. She may have one later (she’s only 8 months old) but for now they both need to lose some weight and settle in. Future piglets will be intended for food, but these two are here to be pets and garden tillers.

The goats and sheep, by the way, are horrified.
The entire herd of goats and sheep clumped up and staring off to the right of photo where two small inoffensive pigs are located off-screen.

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Things I do when I’m not farming: learning Welsh

The story of why I decided to learn Welsh is long and political. Suffice to say that some friends of mine and I were talking, and I realized that it might be fun and fulfilling. My brain is kind of like a border collie or a working German Shepherd, in that if I don’t give it constructive work to do it will make its own work. Given that I’ve struggled with depression for more than 10 years now, I really don’t want my brain making its own hobbies.

I’m learning using the lessons over at Say Something In Welsh, and it’s going really well. Welsh is fascinating to learn, because while it’s an Indo-European language it’s most definitely not a Romance language, so grammatical structures vary wildly from comfortingly familiar to a first language English speaker to “what the hell just happened”. For example, if asked a yes/no question, the words for “yes” and “no” vary by verb and tense — to say yes you might say ydw, do, or oes, depending on what question you’re answering.

A small brown sheep with medium long curving black horns looks directly into the camera.
Oes gen ti ddefaid? Oes, mae gen i ddefaid.
Do you have sheep? Yes, I have sheep.

Welsh also has vowels that English doesn’t, such as “w” (which sounds like oo as in look), “y” (which mostly sounds like English u as in up, except when it sounds like i as in pin), and “u” (which sounds like e as in peek). And after an “ee” sound on the end of the word, a constant at the beginning of the next word may mutate: unvoiced consonants become voiced, voiced consonants disappear entirely. And then of course there’s the infamous Welsh “ll”, which is sort of an unvoiced L.

Trying to learn Welsh, in fact, can give a native English speaker some insight into how difficult it must be to learn English, with all its bizarre irregularities. But I’m having fun with it nonetheless, and measuring my progress by how much I can understand of BBC Welsh language radio podcasts. I haven’t gotten a whole sentence yet, but words are definitely popping up out of the sea of foreign phonemes. I’ll consider myself fluent when I get the jokes.