Monday, October 20, 2014

The Northcroft Sweater

                                                                                    photo by Katy Olson

I can follow a pattern and knit a sweater. I can alter a pattern from straight needles to circular needles, but I can't create a pattern that fits the human body well. However, my young friend Cedar Walters is a genius at pattern design. She doesn't like sewing seams at the end of a knitting project so she has figured out how to create beautiful fitted sweaters with a minimum of finish work.

In exchange for five skeins of Northcroft yarn and my endless gratitude, Cedar designed the Northcroft Sweater, a beautifully simple pattern that knits rapidly, fits well, looks extraordinary and uses the five colors of yarn that my sheep naturally produce - frost white, silver gray, charcoal, chai and coffee. And as an added bonus, the sweater needs no finishing work.

Other knitters rapidly picked up the pattern. One used it with her own handspun yarn. Another dyed the Northcroft yarns in a single dye bath to get a wonderful gradation of a single color. A third  knitter loved the mock cable design and fit of the pattern and is knitting the sweater in a single color of Northcroft yarn.

Cedar blogs at www.cedarknits.wordpress.com. You can also get the Northcroft Sweater pattern, and the Northcroft yarns, or a Northcroft Sweater kit at the Northcroft Store on this blog. If you're driving through Pelican Rapids, MN, the Mercantile on Main is the only physical store that has an exclusive right to sell our yarns and Cedar's patterns.

The Northcroft Sweater illustrates the skill of a talented designer and beauty of our natural yarns. It also shows me that all those cold nights in the barn during lambing, the hot sweaty days baling hay and the work we put into having beautiful, clean fleeces, have really paid off.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Solar power

Last fall, Lake Region Electric, our local energy cooperative, offered an opportunity for members to buy shares of photovoltaic collectors that would be located onsite at the Cooperative offices. This was a perfect opportunity for people without good solar access to invest in solar power. I was intrigued.
Dave and I started figuring out how much more solar power we would need to be completely  powered by the sun and the wind. We had several sites on our farm with good solar access. We decided that with the incentives available to us as individuals, it made more sense for us to invest in our own solar photovoltaic system and leave the Lake Region system investments for people who didn't have a good site for solar power.

We contacted several solar power companies and All Energy Solar responded immediately, answering all our questions and some that we hadn't thought to ask. They designed a system for us, contacted Lake Region Electric Cooperative to make sure that the connection would be compatible with their system.

This summer, in just under a week, two young men installed 32 solar panels down by our bee hives at the end of the orchard. The panels glisten in the sun, reflecting the blues of the sky. They connect to a cable that carries the electricity to our power pole. When the sun shines on the panels, the solar cells make electricity which we use in the house. If the cells produce more than we need, Lake Region Electric buys the surplus from us.When the sun doesn't shine, we depend on our wind generator or buy electricity from Lake Region Electric.

Our investment in the photovoltaic panels is well over $20,000, but with tax credits and depreciation, they should pay for themselves in 8 years, a much better return than any of our other investments and they will help slow global warming too.

 Dave has figured that each year our wind generator produces 16 kwhr of power and prevents the emission of about ten tons of carbon dioxide. Our solar water heater heats about 2/3 of our hot water and as long as I wash clothes and fleeces when the sun shines, it also reduces our carbon pollution by  12%. Our prairies sequester another 33 tons of carbon. If we heat our home with sustainably harvested wood, we avoid another ten tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We aren't carbon neutral yet, but with the help of our photovoltaic system and the sun
we are a bit closer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Letting go

I always have such god intentions before our fall fiber days. This fall I planned to design a new yarn, have kits to sell featuring the yarn I designed last winter, side the greenhouse, start and finish the rain garden that will control the runoff from our south roof, clean the refrigerator, wash the floors and vacuum, clean up the gardens and dye some yarn.

Fiber day this year is this coming Saturday, September 27, four short days away. Last Saturday was the breaking point in my attempt to be prepared; if I didn't get it done by then, it probably wouldn't get done. I swept and washed the floors, dyed 8 colors of wool, harvested the garden, and set my yarn and roving out to sell. Then I watched as Newton the dog walked across the tile floors with big, dirty, doggy feet. By the end of the day, I realized that I wouldn't get the gardens cleaned for fall. I wouldn't wash the wool to dye for a new yarn, I wouldn't do anything on the rain garden or the greenhouse and I certainly wouldn't clean the refrigerator before September 27.

I was over whelmed. This was the fourth fiber day with an unsided greenhouse and bare dirt where the rain garden was supposed to be. I couldn't start on the rain garden until the siding was done. In the last six months, I'd skirted four fleeces and sold three. I still had twenty-four fleeces to skirt and wash and dye for that new yarn. I hadn't found time to create a Northcroft Sweater  or Northcroft Sox kit. In fact, I couldn't even find the yarn I had designed for the sox.

My brain circled around and around all day Sunday berating me for not accomplishing my goals. Although the sun was shining, my day was gray. Monday, Dave and I vaccinated thirty ewes and ten lambs. The we put Winthrop the ram into his marking harness and turned him in with the ewes;  the beginning of our next sheep year. I finished dyeing the last color of yarn needed for fiber day. There was still so much to do.

Then I remembered the important things about fiber day have nothing to do with the cleanliness of my house (or fridge), the state of my garden and yard, or unwashed fleeces. Fiber day is important because people come together to talk, share projects, and use their hands and brains to create.

Saturday, at 4 PM, my sheep year will end when the last car drives away (oh yeah, and we was h the dishes, put away the dyes, yarns and chairs, and sweep and wash the floor). Then Dave and I will put the canoe on top of the car and leave for a week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The chores I had set for myself will be postponed indefinitely. After all, they aren't necessary like vaccinating sheep, playing with grandchildren or going canoeing. I just need to remember what's really important and let go of the rest.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

How to paint a sheep

                                                                                        photo by Peter Jarvis

What happens when you mix a bunch of little kids, several spray bottles of Kool-Aid, and a flock of sheep? The story is told by Jasper, age three...


"Step 2)

Before you catch your lamb you need to prepare your paint.

Unsweetened Kool-Aid™ works really well  for painting lambs (except grape and lemonade).

Black cherry paints maroon, lemon lime comes out green and raspberry is blue. Those are the best flavors to use. I’m not sure why raspberry is blue, but it’s a very nice blue. Orange is orange and cherry and strawberry make light pink.

Mix ten packages of the same color of Kool Aid™  in two cups of water. Pour it into a hand sprayer.

Hang the spray bottle on the fence so it will be ready when you need it.

Be careful not to spray a grownup by accident. They don’t think it’s funny."

How to Paint a Sheep is the first in the Little Lamb Library, a series of picture books written by Joan Jarvis Ellison (that's me). For a step by step guide on how to paint a sheep, buy a copy of the book for the kids in your life at the Northcroft store on this blog or at the Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids, MN.  With this book, as Jasper says, "... seven easy steps. Next time you get invited to a sheep painting party, you'll know what to do. In fact, if you live in the country, you could even get your own sheep to paint."





         

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What does a farm mean?

I just overheard an older gentleman talking in a coffee shop. He said "a farm years ago used to be a lot more labor intensive."

I know that the big mega farms are highly mechanized but we aren't. For me, a farm means a lot of hard work. It means herding and controlling sheep. It means lifting 1500 fifty pound bales of hay at least once a year. It means shoveling manure, shoveling grain, and shoveling snow.

For Dave, the farm means the challenge of repairing old machinery, parts frozen in place by time, grease and dirt. It means building metal parts from scratch using his welder, a forge, a leg vice, and a three pound hammer.

Our daughter, Amber, was asked "What's the dirtiest job you've ever done?" Her answer? "Shoveling sheep manure in the rain." Amazingly, one of her ultra urban friends said "That's not a job, that's growing up on a farm." He also agreed with her.

For our grandsons who all live in big cities, a farm means being able to run as fr as they can, to climb fences, to explore the woods for treasure, and to paint lambs.

To Stevie Ray, a friend who as a young man worked summers for us while he was in college, a farm means a source of funny stories for his jobs as a comedian and a business consultant. His memories of the farm include digging a drain field, catching our youngest eating black nightshade berries and treating her with ipecac then holding her while she vomits. His last article for The Business Journals is about alpaca dentistry  and stems from recent experiences on our farm.

There aren't very many Old MacDonald farms anymore, but for most people, especially the ones who don't live on farms, a farm means "a cheep cheep here, and a moo moo there, here a quack, there a meow, everywhere a baa baa."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Customer service

                                                                           
                                                                                 photos by Gautam Dantas
We're installing a solar photovoltaic system on our farm. The two man crew from All Energy Solar spent four days here. Their major tool was a skidder with a bucket for landscaping the area,  an auger attachment for digging the 24" diameter holes for footings, and a trenching attachment to dig the  trench for the electric wires. Our grandsons, Kieran, Jasper and Simon were entranced. They liked the clay that was uncovered, the holes, and the trenches. They were even more impressed with the concrete pump and the concrete mixer.

The crew kept us up to date on what was happening so the boys could watch. We planned our day around the concrete delivery. They even brought us a monarch caterpillar they found while grading the field around the collector array. But their most amazing act of kindness happened the day we were gone. The men noticed that two of our does and their four kids had escaped from the pasture. The guys found the hole in the fence, rounded up the goats and encouraged them back through the hole. Then, they fixed the hole!

It's too bad that all companies don't have the same customer service instincts as All Energy Solar.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

If one boy can

Dave's Grandpa Greene used to say "one boy can do half a man's work, but two boys, working together can only do a quarter of a man's work."

Last week we called a young friend who wanted to help with baling. We asked him to bring a couple of boys. He showed up with four friends. They all came in the same car and all were eager to earn some money, so we hired them all, but we kept thinking 'if two boys working together do a quarter of a man's work, what happens with five boys working together?'

The first thing we teach them is how to move the bales from the wagon onto the bale elevator. If they lay the bale on straight, it travels up the elevator and into the hay mow without falling off or getting hung up in the narrow doorway to the mow.  Some years more bales end up on the ground than in the mow. Next  we teach them how to stack the bales in the mow. The bottom bales lay on their sides so the twines don't rot, all running north and south. The next layer, stacked on their bottoms, run east and west and the next layer north and south continuing in that pattern until the barn is full. It seems like such a simple pattern, but if one person starts to stack the bales wrong, everyone who follows him carries on the mistake. It wouldn't be so bad, but a stack ten bales high and two bales wide can be very unstable if it has no cross ties to connect it to the rest of the pile. Some years, we've spent as much time rearranging the hay as stacking it.

This year, with these boys, after a few reminders, the barn is in perfect shape. we had a freshman, several sophomores and eleventh graders and a new graduate. They paid attention and learned the patterns. They worked together, solved problems together and chattered the entire time in Somali. They watched Dave and I keep working when we got hot and tired and they did the same. They watched us throw bales and took pride in learning the technique. At the end of our week of work, Dave and I baled a wagon-load on our own while they filled the barn on their own; they were 100% successful.

Baling hay was a real pleasure this year, because of our crew of five boys.  Even if one boy can only do half a man's (or woman's) work, these five boys can do the job.