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Feeling My Age during Artic Blast

I chose a career change to shepherd in my middle age, and I really haven’t addressed those unique physical challenges. I actually enjoy the physical part of the job and take pride of the fact I can hoist 50 pound feed sacks and hay bales. I took a sheep shearing class and can shear my sheep the traditional New Zealand way and did so until a couple of years ago when my numbers increased to require a professional. But I can shear when the need arises such as illness or before a sale. And I can woman handle a ram or large buck (in the case of goats,) and I can work a day long sheep catching day when we load up the barn with sheep before the shearer arrives. So as we were visited by record cold temps that simply would not leave for about a couple of weeks, I began to feel my age down to my bones.

The super cold air meant one small word, but huge problem: ICE!

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Ice was cracked with a broken hoe that could lift chunks of ice.

We had to come up with a strategy to first keep the water flowing and then deal with keeping the water liquid for the rabbits, sheep, goats and chickens and our few ducks. This added to our…ok my chores and for the length of time I needed to be outside. On some days, the temps did not get out of the teens, some days lower. I would be outside for about 2-3 hours. I pulled into service old coffee cans for the rabbits as their steel tipped waterers froze immediacy and would not work, period. The two sets of coffee cans were changed out daily as one set could be melting while indoors.

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Maizy bunny drinks from her coffee can.

Chickens water had to be replace two to three times daily

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Chickens eager for their fresh liquid water.

and the sheep and goats water had to have ice cracked to expose the liquid underneath. But it was cold for so long, solid blocks result and water had to be replaced via buckets as hoses were useless.

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Sheep wake up to another frigid day.

The ducks were my comic relief as I would create a puddle under the water hydrant and the ducks bathed, drank and played as their pond froze over. Not only did their pond freeze, but the big farm pond froze too resulting in the wild geese standing on it rather than swimming in it.

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Ducks take joy from a mud puddle before it froze too.

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Our frozen farm pond.

Each day, I dressed head to foot in fleece and wool and headed out to solve the days problems. Each day I felt more tired and my joints ached. Some days I just could not get warm and would soak in a hot tub to try and bring my body back to normal. My idle thoughts were wandering to doubts about my career decision. I mean, this is my passion, and I love creating products out of this wonderful wool and I love my relationship with the animals. I did come to one conclusion, I could not have made it through these days without my wool socks. My feet were always warm.  And I resolved to soldier on to produce such a useful, natural and beautiful fiber that has not failed us for thousands of years. No synthetic has ever been created that surpasses wool for qualities of warmth, renewability, strength, breathability and so many more. I just need to step up my conditioning to deal with this “global warming thang” and I intend to.

And news alert….on the front burner is a mission to produce a strong stretchy sock yarn using the Shetland Wool. And even Sweet Tree Hill Farm signature socks. So more on this later. Stay tuned!

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Dye Studio Day, Shetland Roving in the Pot

Sharing my little dye secrets as I go about applying color to some Shetland roving I grew and had produced at the Virginia Fiber Mill.
I start off by winding the roving around my forearm. I place the ring of roving in the pot (steel or enameled) so I can distribute the dye through out the roving.

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I add water until it just covers the roving. I don’t want it swimming around.

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Then I set the pot onto a portable burner and set the heat to 180°. I let it come up to temperature, takes about 20 minutes. This allows the fiber to become saturated too.

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Now to formulate the plan of action. I draw a circle and make a map of how I will pour the dye.

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The Landscapes dye I use is an acid dye that contains all the additives. So no mordant required. It is in powder form.
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I use old plastic tumblers to mix in.
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I add the appropriate amount of dye, and mix with hot tap water. Once the temperature of the heating fiber is at 180°, it is time to pour.

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I pour across the the rows of roving according to my map. I let the simmering continue for another 20-30 minutes. Then I let cool, usually over night.

Then when cool, I drain off the water which should be near clear. I rinse the roving in my work sink, being careful not to agitate.

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I hang to drain the water and let dry…And there you are.

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I bag up to sell in my etsy farm shop or at one of the fiber festivals I attend. It is fun to work with wool I grow in my own pasture. It is lovely stuff, great to spin, to felt with. The sale  of our hand dyed roving helps to support our farm and allows us to continue providing wonderful fiber for you.

A Shepherd’s Reflection.

Farming is an occupation, or dare I say a life’s work, that is very influenced by the seasons. And some touch me more than others. At this moment, this edge of Spring into Summer is one of my favorites. You see there is a pause. We have completed lambing, prepared and attended a fiber festival, finished shearing, hoof trimming, vaccines and tagging. We are getting geared up for summer chores, such as fencing, getting our garden going, planning our trip to the mill to prepare fleeces for another festival. So I can breath a bit. The grasses have fully recovered from last year’s drought. In fact, bush hogging is on the list for the to do’ s. So I don’t have to feed hay, one less chore and expense.

I take a bit of time for myself and enjoy the bounty of the farm. The weather is warmer, but the evenings are still cooler and the humidity is low. The honeysuckle is perfuming the air with sweet notes. The barn swallows are darting around gathering nest building materials. The chickens are busy scratching in my yet to be planted gardens, taking care of some tilling, clucking in conversation. My rooster has thoroughly cleaned out the debris from my flower pots. Lilies and irises are blooming attracting butterflies.

So I decide to take some time to myself now that the sun is staying up longer. After the rabbits are fed and I close up the dye studio, I pull out my swim suit, a boogie board, beach chair and kindle and head down to the fishing pier. The Rocket Man tags along to serve as lifeguard. I walk down through the sheep pasture, with the tall grass tickling my thighs. The pond greets me as I kick off my flip flops. I love the texture of the worn wooden boards of the fishing pier. I open my chair and settle the kindle and my towel into it. The Rocket Man settles into his watchful position.

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The Rocket Man is my pond side lifeguard

Frogs add to the bird’s chorus. I attach the strap of the boogie board to my wrist and I ease down the dock ladder into the cool water.

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My new dock ladder.

At this moment I am thanking God I was blessed this spring fed pond. I use the blog is board to float past a few lilipads and once in clear water, I abandon the board and begin a slow steady breast stroke out to the middle, board following behind via the strap. After about a hundred and thirty yards, I turn back, and use the board when I run out of breath . I do about five or six laps of this, allowing my mind to think of nothing but the birds that collect bugs on the water’s surface ahead of me, or the smell of the honeysuckle, or the sunlight flickering on the tiny wake left by my very slow swimming strokes. This is my mini-vacation from, well, everything. From the chores, the bills, the orders that never seem to get done fast enough. But we all have that stuff don’t we? I love that I can get away in my back yard.

So as I climb out of my pond, I look forward to drying off in the sun, in my beach chair, reading my latest book on my kindle.

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View from my beach chair.

Rocket also takes a sun bath. Soon, I take a deep breath and promise myself to add wine to the experience next time, and I head up the hill through the tall grass. The sheep are playing their version of Marco Polo as mama ewes try to locate their lambs.

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The walk up to my house after my swimming vacation.

I am loving country life at this moment as I enter the real world again, wondering what I have to cook for dinner.

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Sheep are following me wondering if I have dinner for them too.

We Chased, We Sheared, We Tagged, We Survived!

As I sit here all dirty with lanolin, and crud  that sticks to lanolin, I reflect on a crazy busy 2 days. Shearing time demands all hands on deck. My two teenaged son’s would rather be cruising  You Tube, but with the daunting task of catching 16 sheep and their 15 lambs, their grudging help is required. Now complaining allowed.

We start by attracting the flock into a corral area with the promise of grain. The easy part. As they much away, we strategize our plan of action. The idea is to get them into one corner of the corral and slowly ease them along the back fence line and into a dead end area where we can block the opening with a section of picket fence. Sheep naturally follow fence lines, as long as they stay in their flock and not spooked. We get most in the first try and work methodically to move them, one by one up to the barn. An arduous task and the barn is not as close as I would like it. Sheep don’t lead well. Note to self….would be nice to have a four wheeler for easier transport.

So doing this, and getting the boys took about four hours. We got bucked, kicked, dragged and yes, the sons did complain. And so did the husband. I of course am not allowed to because all of this sheep business is my idea. But we did it and it is satisfying that this biannual task is once again done.

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Today was the shearing. I am blessed with an awesome shearer- in talent and demeanor. Emily and her sweet redheaded daughter came mid day. My friend Hannah and her two redheaded kiddies came too. Quite fun watching little ones with flaming hair running around as the big folks get down to business.

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The red headed kiddies!

Emily pulls out each sheep and my older son manages the barn door. As Emily briskly starts shearing, I ready the vaccines, Hanna’ s other daughter Morgan, fills out cards with each sheep’s name and readies a bag. After the sheep is sheared, Emily trims hooves. I gather the fleece put it in the waiting bag, I then administer the vaccine. Back in the stall for the sheep and Emily pulls out the next sheep. The process moved along without complications.

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When all are sheared, Emily and daughter Lydia head out to the next county for another farm with waiting sheep. But I am not done. Hannah and I get back to the barn and start working on the 15 babies. The lambs will not be sheared for the first time until the Fall. Today the all need vaccines and need to be tagged. My flock is getting large enough, that I can’t keep everyone straight. Since I have a registered flock, it is important that I keep track of parentage. So Hannah stayed on to help me.

We closed ourselves in the stall and got to work. We caught lambs who I knew for sure. While Hannah held the little one, I gave the vaccination in the hip. Then I loaded the tag into the applicator, Morgan recorded the number with the name of the lamb and I pierced the ear between the two main veins and attached the tag. It is a quick process and we did not have anyone even call out or cry. Such brave little lambs.

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See the jewelry the lambs are wearing?

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The last part is to get the flock back to the pasture, not one at a time, but all at once. I gathered some grain, opened the stall, and called “Sheep, sheep!” All at once, they follow me baaing and bleating into the gate. Such a noise. So now they are contentedly grazing. I sit here covered from head to foot in barn dirt. A whirl pool tub is calling my name. I have a closet full of fleeces that will soon head to the mill to become yarn and roving sold at festivals and my Farm store on etsy. Now for that bath.

Home Alone? Sort of.

After dropping a couple of teenagers at school, and hubby has long left for a real job…I come back to visit with my critters…or as they like to be called…my co-workers. Often I prefer their company, especially as the craziness of the world swirls around us. It is breakfast time. They get theirs before I get my first cup of coffee.

So this morning is a little chilly, but the sun’s warmth is welcome on my shoulder. The chickens who did not make it back in their coop last night, run from the barn to greet me and provide companionship as I go about my chores. I let the rest of the gang out of their coops to help in the search for grubs and other tasty treats.

I head to the barn to prepare breakfast. On the menu is hay. The tiniest shoots of grass are beginning to appear in the pasture, but do not provide the needed nutrients for pregnant ewes and rams and goats. I slide open the door and take in the smell of sweet hay. I grab bailing twine around a fat square bail and pull it down. I reach for my favorite Tony Stewart knife and pop the twine and peel off a few slices and head over to the near by fence and drop over slices into 3 even piles as the ewes come over for their meal.

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Ewes focused on breakfast

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Ewes eating breakfast, see Nisa on the ridge napping in the background?

I check out the pasture as the sheep crunch away. The geese are on the banks of our lake digging around the shore for their breakfast. I scan the ridge and find Nisa in her usual morning spot-flat out on her back to napping while taking in the morning sun. I envy the life of a dog.

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Morning at the lake, see the geese on long the shore?

A deep baritone baaaa! brings me back to the task at hand. Old Rosie is in the paddock by the barn with two yearling ewes who were not bred this year. She is 12 years old and officially retired and acts as nanny to the youngsters. She is hungry and always tells me so. Off to the barn for her share as the chickens follow me in hopes of some seeds dropped from the hay.

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Barn paddock, chickens and sheep.

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Rosie looks on as chickens peck.

After Rosie and her charges are fed, it is off to the rear field with a big stack of hay for the cashmere goats and the yearling rams. They don’t share so well, so for the next few minutes, I run around the electric net fence and drop off 6 or 7 separate piles of hay so everyone has a bit without fighting.

Finally, I check in with the rabbits. I fill water bottles and give each of them a share of hay too. Crunching noise follows as all approve of the menu. I look in on Saphire, who will kindle in about a week. She is already building her nest of hay and fiber from her tummy in the nesting box in anticipation of her babies. Good. Right on schedule. I sigh as I look forward to new Angora bunnies.

I look around and am happy and blessed  to begin my morning in this place and with such lovely company. Now I am off for that cup of coffee and to work.

A Cream of Wheat kind of morning.

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View from the kitchen window.

The sun rises on an icy pasture. This is my view as I stumble into my kitchen, hoping my hubby had made coffee before he left. Most mornings he has and this one is no exception. From my kitchen window I take in the fact that winter came overnight and when this happens, I am always in awe of how my little world is transformed. What was a muddy mess the day before, is now winter white. Would that my wardrobe be so transforming.

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Looking over the landscape.

So I grab my shawl and a winter hat and slip on some boots and head out to capture the splendor and to see how the animals are faring.  I love the textures that are revealed. And the air is so crisp. It is one thing to look out of the kitchen window. Quite another to feel the wind on your face and stop feeling your fingers as they struggle to click off a few. Add the crunch of your boots and your frosty breath streaming from your mouth and your body is now wearing winter. So take in my little views, hope you enjoy as much a  I do. Afterwards…I still have chores, and dyeing to do. I hope I am feeling the same way.
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Sheep waking up.

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Place of employment, aka the dye studio for Scarlet Fleece

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Goats were moved to the barn yesterday.

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The Gazebo.

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The garden

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Another view of the garden.

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Sheep again.

Rain, rain and more…snow?

Regardless of rain or snow, Nisa is guarding.

Regardless of rain or snow, Nisa is guarding.

Ok…this is a boo hoo I think this weather sucks post. As someone who has a bunch of outside chores, and am tired of muddy boots…and who actually likes a challenge, is actually a bit tired of the 4th day in a row of wet weather. This is the thing that separate the can-do folks from the fair weather “farmers”. So I have to remind me that I can take it…I can take my sheep shelter flooded out…I can take cold fingers, wet wool hats, hay that sticks to wet pants and a permanently red nose with chapped lips. I can get my sheep, rabbits, goats and chickens fed. And I can still get dyeing done and wool washed. Just not sure how long stuff will take to dry.

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A washed shetland fleece drying…maybe

 

But I will git her done. And I will sip hot tea, and keep an eye to the sky….because the worst is yet to come. We have 5-8 inches of snow coming tonight. And I will be moving goats and rams to the barn before 2pm. Thank you mother nature for your wisdom. You say jump and I will say, “how high?”

Thoughts on the Fiber Path

All of us are on some path of some sort. Some are methodical about setting goals, resolutions and such, especially at this time of year. January is not only the first month of the year, but there is often not much happening. Nature has provided enough nasty weather to keep us inside and today is no exception as I am staring at a cool rainy grey day. So I thought I would do my bit and give some thoughts to tackle the notion as to plans, hopes and dreams I might have for the coming year…or should I say the year we already have dipped our toe into.

I am happy to be taking this time to evaluate the stage my farm is in and where I see it heading. Also my personal journey in the Fiber world I have created for myself. And maybe a dash of the spiritual too. Sweet Tree Hill Farm is starting to take shape. We have 14 registered Shetland Sheep, with 4 quality rams, 9 ewes-6 of which are being bred for late April babies.

One of our pastures has really good fencing in place. We (my husband and I) have plans to fence in another this spring. Right now, we have 3 of the rams along with 6 cashmere goats in temporary fencing the we move every couple of weeks or so. We have a functional barn with attached pole barn that is in need of repair. Not sure when that will take place. We also have a couple of small coops with some bantam chickens, enough to provide eggs for the family. And add 8 Angora rabbits, a farm/guardian dog along with a free roaming 17 year old goat and you get the gist of my set up along with my live stock.

My focus this year is to develop products. A farm….a real farm, needs to generate an income in order for it to be sustained. My hay bill during the winter months is $80 per month, feed bill is about $80 per month all year long, not to mention fencing, shearing, and so on and you get the picture. We have started by creating an Etsy Store and posting yarn and hand blended roving from the sheep and rabbits. We have added multicolored dyed roving from my wholesale business, Scarlet Fleece…some knitting kits with hand spun Angora. And more recently, I have utilized some felting skills I have picked up from classes and have created felted soaps and felted and embroidered jewelry, purses and ornaments.

Sales are slowly getting more regular. And this April, we are signed up for a Fiber Festival in Powhatan County. I have many fleeces at a local mill and by the festival, we will have yarn in several natural colors, roving and felt.

I am enjoying creating the products. I am trying to be true to myself and create some different things no one else is doing. The exploration is very gratifying. For instance, no one produces felted soap with Angora. It is more difficult to felt with Angora, but I have developed a process that works for me, and I add extras like blending in silk noil, or needle felting some rabbits or sheep onto the soap. I am most proud of my felted purses and jewelry. The first fiber skill I was taught was embroidery when I was six years old. It is fun to use that skill and create one of a kind products like the pendants, coin purses and cuffs. I use my hand dyed roving, along with different forms of silk to create the felt. So these products are not like anything else out there. It is fun developing the process for creating these items.

The other part of all of this is marketing. This is a challenge and one I need to look at this year. My goal is to develop a website along with the blog and Facebook page and continue to work the Etsy system…which isn’t bad once you dig into it. But I need to increase sales to actually make money.

Taking care of animals falls mostly to me, but a chore I love most of the time. Those exceptions might be during very inclement weather, like today. I like developing relationships with each animal. This is actually quite helpful when it comes to catching an escaped animal, or moving them to a different location. Not to mention working on them, like vaccinating, trimming hooves, working and shearing. It goes a long way if they are familiar with you. And mine are, I feel honored about it actually.

And feeding falls into the category of routine. I think there is balance and a feeling of calmness and security when you stick to a routine. When I feed each rabbit, I pet each one and talk to it. They often reach up to receive these little affections and it is good for them if we monitor them closely. If one is familiar with the behavior of your animals, you can catch things early. And it is a part of my day I look forward to…they are my coworkers and they keep me grounded.

Now don’t think all is a Beatrix Potter story, there is much hard work with deadlines. I have to meet the needs of my Farm but also the needs of my wholesale yarn dying business, needs of my family, like laundry, gardening, house cleaning and so on. So another aspect of my fiber path is balance. Last year, I lacked that balance. I felt like when I was working on the farm, I needed to be working on Scarlet Fleece.

And visa versa. Not to mention trying to do things with my family. I also was not taking care of myself, not exercising, or getting enough rest. So last week, I put together a weight lifting, aerobic, yoga routine and added meditation to check in with my spirit guides, along with a daily tarot card reading. This helps me to make decisions that I find difficult sometimes. It is also my idea of prayer. I also walk with my big guardian dog around the perimeter of the pasture and down to the lake to do a little meditation and she is also a good listener.

Finally there is my fiber exploration. I always like to learn about working with different fibers and work on personal projects. And as stated in prior postings, I am exploring the qualities of specific sheep, namely sheep with North European origin. So while working on a traditional Icelandic shawl, I am also spinning Gotland for a sweater and later I will be jumping into my own Shetland.

So this is my state of things now at my little corner of the world. I have much to work on and explore along the Fiber path this year. And maybe, I might find a better me along with a better farm and fiber business at the end of this year.

Shearing Day!

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Wally gets his first hair cut.

I always look forward to shearing day. That is the day I get to see the fleeces up close. I get to see the result of all the care and feeding. I also can evaluate the condition of the sheep and make some breeding decisions. Of course it helps to have an expert shearer. And Emily is certainly that.

Of course there is some prep time involved, namely catching the sheep. Each farmer needs to come up with a plan of action that takes into account your set up and even the personality of your sheep, not to mention who you have on hand to help with the task. I am armed with a can do husband and one willing teenage son. What we do is get them into a smaller space-a paddock that borders their pasture. Then the 3 of us, along with a fence panel, herd them into yet a smaller area and lock them in there using the fence panel. Now the choreography of this dance takes a bit of practice. But the three of us are seasoned enough that we can do this pretty effectively, not always the case in the beginning, however. One by one, we catch and lead the sheep to the barn; ewes and wethers in one stall, rams in another.

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We set up our skirting table, gather bags and marking pens as well as inoculation material, and a camera. Sheep need to be off feed for at least 8-12 hours and kept dry so the fleeces will be able to be stored and sheep won’t have to be sheared on a full stomach and all the problems that go with that.

Emily arrived with shearing equipment and daughter in tow. And quickly shearing commenced…after first letting little Lydia gets to visit with some resident angora bunnies. Emily is a competitive shearer, but speed is not the highest concern. The sheep‘s comfort is the 1st consideration.

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The fleeces are gathered and bagged to be saved either for hand spinning or the mill to be made into yarn, roving, or felt.

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Afterwards sheep look a bit naked and certainly smaller. They check each other out as if meeting for the first time.

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Well…in the evening, after munching on a noon meal…teenage son and I distribute everybody to where they will live for the next six weeks, which is breeding time. Old Rosie will be housed by the barn with the yearling ewes. Three of the four rams will be in the field behind the woodshed. And the chosen ram, who is Wally…heads to the large pond pasture
with the breeding ewes and the wethers. So quite an exciting time.

It is now August-dog days on steroids

I will admit it, I am not a fan of summer. I spend lots of time outside as I have to tend animals and a garden. But it become increasingly difficult this time of year, so some things do fall by the wayside-namely keeping a tidy garden. I do just enough not to be overtaken by weeds-but not much more. And I struggle daily with the watering-my garden always seems to need more than I give it so it is looking a bit haggard. That being said-it still is producing. My sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are more like sweet 1000’s. And I am now getting a good crop of peppers. And I even have harvested 4 cantaloupes this week.

Lovely for breakfast!

As we have had the hottest and driest July that I can remember, I dread August even more. Our pastures still look like a moonscape. The few rains we have had have not made much of a dent. While I have added hay to the diet of the sheep and goats-they seem to be even more eager to get their grain rations-if that is possible.

I have altered my schedule to feed animals in the evening-when things cool a bit. After giving grain to the sheep-I have gotten in the habit of sitting on the crunchy grass with my flock to look them over and build our shepherd/sheep relationship. Some of the lambs now come over to be scratched-namely Wally (of course!) but also Hickory. And they even pay me in little lamby kisses. Such a treat for me as I love these little guys.

But still…I do need to venture out in the hot conditions to tend to the rabbits-keeping them cool with frozen 2 liter bottles of ice. And also making sure everyone has water and so on. Not to mention hanging out over hot pots of steaming yarn as I dye. I have never sweat so much in my life. At the end of the day-I cannot cool off fast enough and rid my body of salty sweat. (Maybe that is what the lambs are kissing off!)

Well-Fall is 6 weeks away…cannot get here fast enough! My kids are saddened that they start beck to school this week-I say-be happy you are in air conditioning.

Steamed Squash and Onions

Quick recipe for using up your squash-this is what I dream of in winter as I am planning my garden. And it is soooooo easy!

Slice 2 good-sized Summer Squash and slice 1 half of a sweet onion and put in a microwave safe casserole dish. Mix together. Add about 3-4 tablespoons of water. Slice 3 or 4 pats of real butter and place on top. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place in microwave on high for 8 minutes. Stir and there you have it-a lovely side dish for any meal in just a few minutes. Enjoy and stay cool!

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