Friday, August 28, 2015

Leaving the farm

At the end of last month, I left the farm in Dave's capable hands and drove north to Ely to spend time with college friends, most of whom I hadn't seen since we all turned 50, 17 years ago.

My shift in perspective was startling. Sheep sales, wet hay and weeds had been my focus for two months. Suddenly, I was looking beyond the fence lines and the world sparkled.

Gretchen identified rabbit tail clover, a plant that I found along the edge of the road. Melissa taught me about Solvay, a heat sensitive surface used to glue small pieces of fabric together, Laurie and I talked past canoe trip routes and the joy of paddling. Linda, my junior year roommate, introduced me to Fibonacci quilt patterns, wonderful repeating designs based on the Fibonacci series, a mathematical construct. Linda, my freshman year roommate, and I proudly sold My Sheep can Dance, a children's picture book which I wrote and Linda illustrated, and began planning our next collaboration.

Four days away allowed me to return to the farm full of creative ideas, looking forward to Dave's and my next canoe trip, and ready to bale our next crop of hay.

                                             Laurie, Gretchen, Joanie, Melissa
                                             Linda, Linda

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Chickens come and go

We bought our twenty chickens just in time for our grandsons to learn the joys of baby chicks. Kieran and Jasper the older two, cradled them gently in their cupped hands, satisfied just to watch them and feel their fragile bodies beneath the fluffy feathers.

Dave and I enjoyed walking out to the barn first thing in the morning to let them out into their run and returning to the barn every evening to shut them up safe. We checked on the sheep and talked to the chickens on each trip. It was very bucolic, perhaps too bucolic. I was actually looking forward to the day the last chicken learned to fly so that they could use our automatic chicken door that closed at dusk and opened at dawn.

And then one morning when Dave went out, there were only three live chickens left in the coup. A critter had climbed the fence and found her way through the automatic chicken door. What ever kind of animal it was, the critter must have been working for weeks to find a way into the coup and had finally succeeded.

Dave shut off the automatic door and reinforced the fence, but the next morning the last three chickens were dead.

I was stunned at how sad I felt, way out of proportion to the amount of love I thought I had for those chickens. But I cared. I had treasured the joy in Kieran and Simon and Jasper's responses, the expectation of someday gathering eggs, the pleasure I got from watching the chicks change from fuzzy balls of down to scraggly adolescents, to beautiful adult plumage  in black and white and brown. We would have been butchering our soon. But to have something else butcher them, and not to even eat them all, that was so sad.

Dave and I are working on plans for a more secure chicken coop. Next spring, we'll begin again. After all we should have remembered, chicken lives are fragile, they come and go.

Monarch Festival just down the road

                                                                                               photo by Glen Larson

Why do butterflies matter?

For over a year now, several of our friends have been working on the Monarch Festival in Fergus Falls, to find ways to show as many people as possible the answer to that very question.

Their answer has grown into something wonderful. The Festival, which is going on this week includes music, art, literature, community conversations, talks by local experts about monarch butterflies and prairies and butterfly gardens, puppetry, several art workshops, and the premier of The Butterfly Effect, a documentary film by Deb Wallwork. Every one of the events listed on their web page is worthy of your time.

The Monarch Festival is brought to you "by people who are giving their energy and heart to the effort to save this magnificent and mysterious  insect,  a symbol of the simple, carefree joys of summer,
whose very existence  is now in jeopardy."

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Lake Region Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage fund.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Prairie Grass

                                              photo by Glen Larson

Several years ago when we began planting prairie grasses on low lying, frequently wet  parts of our hay field, I recognized two different prairie grasses - Big Blue Stem with tall purplish and three flower stalks (the reason for its common name, Turkey Foot), and Side Oats Gramma, a distinctive shorter grass with all its seeds dangling from one side of the stem. I was ecstatic when I first saw the tall purplish grasses in our fields.

As that first summer progressed, I keyed out the flowers expecting to find the prairie forbs I knew we had planted - Black-eyed Susan, Purple Prairie Clover,  and Yarrow. I found the Yarrow, but all the other flowers were volunteers, not the species we had planted, and most of the blooms were thistles. This summer was completely different. Not only did we have prairie flowers, but I could identify them all, and hardly any were thistles

So, I decided to key out the grasses, hoping to find more than Big Blue Stem. My books were unhelpful. One key differentiated between reeds, sedges and grasses. Sedges had triangular stems. Grasses had round stems. That was as far as the key went. After a collecting walk, I had ten kinds of round stemmed grasses, all very different.

Photographs are really useless in a grass guide except for Big Blue Stem and Side Oats Gramma - perhaps the reason I can recognize them. Line drawings turned out to be much better for identification. I tentatively labeled one specimen Switch Grass because of the airy spray of tiny, delicate pinkish flowers at the end of each stem. Fantastic. Now I had nine unidentified samples labeled "grass."

Then I found University of California -  Davis' guide to grasses online. It was a real field guide with a real key. I got out my magnifying glass and began:
1) seed heads close to stem or standing away from stem
2) leaves clasping stem with a slit, overlapped, or continuous overlapped
3) nodes or no nodes on stem
4) shape of leaf as it meets stem
5) shape of flowers - tube-like or not
6) root structure

It was a new world. Differences I had never noticed jumped into view when I looked carefully. Switch Grass turned out to be actually Reed Canary Grass,  just as  the yellow daisy like flowers with dark centers which I had identified as Black-eyed Susans  differentiated into both Black-eyed Susans and Grey headed Cone flower when I studied them up close.

From a distance, the prairie is a beautiful sea of waving, undifferentiated flowers and grasses like something nebulous from a poem or a landscape painting. But up close,  each grass is a little miracle, flowers designed to release pollen to the winds and shoots sinking deep into the earth to ensure survival during droughts and prairie fires. Beautiful in form, function and utility.  I'll never look at grasses in the same way again.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Our praiire this week is a mass of purple and gold. And yet, I didn't go out there. I knew that the purple was thistles and if they were blooming, it was too late to cut or spray them. They would be going to seed no matter what we did. But I needed  a prairie photo for my next blog posting, so yesterday morning I walked across the hayfield, forded the ditch, pushed my way through head high grasses and emerged into the prairie.
                                             photo by Dave Ellison

It was so beautiful! So beautiful! I just kept saying it over and over as I stared. I was standing in the midst of a sea of black eyed susans, sunflowers, vervain, wild bergamot and yarrow. All in bloom. It was so beautiful I could hardly catch my breath. This land that had been a wasteland of thistles only a few years ago was now the most beautiful thing I had ever seen (with the exception of my daughters and my grandsons).

Our friends Doug and Mike had assured me that the prairie would take over the thistles, but I hadn't really believed them until I saw the flowers with my own eyes. Golden black eyed susan, pale purlpe bergamot. So beautiful.


photos by Kate Andrews

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


We've been baling hay for 31 years (It really just feels that way, actually we've been baling hay for two weeks a year for 31 years) and it doesn't get any easier. The machinery breaks down and Dave repairs it. The skies fill with rain clouds every few days and wash the windrows. A few of our part time employees realize how much hard work baling is and suddenly discover that they need to be elsewhere. Dave and I bale three wagon loads by ourselves after the dew has dried. I build the first half of the load while Dave drives the tractor. When my arms and back run out of energy, Dave takes my place on the wagon and I drive the tractor.  We call three or four high school boys to help us unload the wagons in the evening.

Those things happen every year and this year was no different. What was different this year was the big river of smoke that drifted from the wild fires in northwestern Canada, keeping the dew point high and obscuring the sun. Mornings and evenings the sun glowed, an orange red sphere on the horizon. "What's wrong with the sun?" the boys asked as we rested after unloading a hay wagon. "Why doesn't the hay dry?" Dave asked as he turned windrows. "When will we ever be done haying?" I complained.

And then came the day that is marked as a personal best on my internal checklist of such things, the day I built a load of 80 hay bales all by myself. I'd never made it past 40 bales in the past. Normally, I couldn't boost very many bales up four feet onto the top layer. Normally, I couldn't keep up with the speed that the bales came off the chute of the baler. But this summer wasn't normal. It was a perfect year for me to build an entire load. The smoke kept the heat down. The field we were baling  was mostly grass and thus made for lighter bales. and the field also needed to be fertilized so the plants were shorter and the bales were fewer so the bales came out of the baler more slowly. Even with all those excuses, I felt strong and triumphant as I pulled bale number 80 onto the wagon and Dave turned off the tractor.

Of course, the next mornings bales were so heavy that I could hardly lift them at all. I drove tractor and Dave built the entire load. But it didn't matter because yesterday, I, a sixty-seven year old woman, had built an entire wagon load of bales, all by myself.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Up close and personal

                                                                                     photo by Kate Andrews
When Budd and Kate began taming our lambs this spring, I never considered the  repercussions.
Having Kate and Budd feed the bottle lambs when we were gone was an obvious plus. Having the bottle lambs come when we call the sheep is another because the rest of the lambs tend to follow the bottle lambs.

 We knew that friendly lambs made everybody happy to visit the barnyard. Our grandsons really appreciate them...

There  are, however, some disadvantages to friendly sheep. They don't know their own strength, and as they get bigger they are also stronger. They have no interpersonal boundaries. Your lap is their lap. And they will happily follow you anywhere.

                                                                                    self  portrait by David Fluegel

The biggest disadvantage comes the day someone shows up at the farm wanting to buy that cute little lamb for supper. The lamb standing beside you because it trusts you. The lamb you've hand fed since it was a newborn. The lamb that you couldn't add to the flock even if it had a nice fleece because it's a boy. When you raise sheep and then tame them, the consequences of being a farmer are much clearer because you know each animal personally.

I can't keep all my lambs. They would rapidly outgrow the amount of pasture we have and the amount of hay we can bale. So every summer we sell most of our lambs. With 40 or 50 lambs, we usually don't get to know them. But this summer, because Kate and Budd have taken the time to tame our lambs, we do know them and we do love them.

Up close and personal is not the way most people want  to view their supper; but this summer I have realized that more than ever before, up close and personal is the way I want to raise my sheep.