Wednesday, December 29, 2010 Fence

Normally, when we look out our back window, this is what we see...our furry family quietly grazing on the hill...not a care in the world...oblivious to everything, except the last green sprigs of grass to survive the first snowfall of winter. When they look like this, we know all is right with the world. They're our barometer of trouble on the perimeter. Then, every one is facing the same direction, intently studying the suspected intruder. But this afternoon, we saw something totally different. The entire herd was on the run, but not in concert as they usually do. This time the pattern was more erratic and irrational. Then we noticed...there were too many bodies out there, and they were leading the pack.

It's not uncommon for us to see white tailed deer up on the hill just above our field. Sometimes there are as many as a dozen or so, including a rare white deer that seems to glow in the afternoon sun. But today, they were lost. There's a small road that traces the back of our property, and the herd had decided to take that road today.
But on their way back, two of the doe had jumped our five-foot fence and were greeted by our legion of male Alpacas. The ensuing frenzy erupted as the deer frantically tried to find an opening to get out of the pasture. The front-runner made it over the first barrier with a standing high-jump, clearing the five foot fence with a foot to spare.
The second...not so lucky. Either she couldn't see the mesh fence, or in her desperation, she couldn't gauge her jump. Three times, she slammed headlong into the fence, buckling the wire and ripping it off the fence posts. Finally on the fourth try, she slowed down as she approached the fence and cleared it without effort. But there were still two more fences
between her and freedom. Behind the barn and beyond my line of sight, she made the same mistake at least one more time, leaving a waving fence line as a memory of her ordeal. Third time was the charm. Free at at last.

Adventures in Cat Wrangling

Last Spring, when the snow melted and everything came back to life, we found ourselves inundated with a herd of squeaky critters, just waiting for feeding time. It was time to bring in the professionals..."Barn Cats". We got two from a kindly cat lady who must have had 20 running around her barn. We were very optimistic about the prospects of witnessing the "Great Mouse Migration".

Good News/Bad News

The Good News is, we haven't seen a live mouse in the barn since the Barn Cats arrived, although one of the cats soon disappeared after arriving. The remaining cat, Stella, has proven to be a natural born killer. In fact, anything smaller than a cat that lives in the vicinity of the barn, does so with an impending sense of doom. And rightly so. We've seen Stella tearing across the yard in hot pursuit of full grown rabbits. That's had an additional benefit of improving our garden survival rate.

The Bad News is, Stella is a female cat. And mother nature taking its hand in things, we soon had "Little Cat", Stella's first born. We were surprised that she only had one kitten, but life went on. Keeping a vigilant watch on the potential mouse population was a big job. Then a few months flew by and Stella had another litter, this time five little carbon copies of "Little Cat". So now we've repaced the scourge of too many mice with too many cats.
It was only a few days after Stella had her kittens in the middle of the hay loft, until she decided to move them. Up in the quiet warmth of the rafters above the hay loft she had carefully hidden them. Except for the occassional head peeking over the beam, we didn't see them for several weeks.
Then one day as we came in for Alpaca feeding time, we were greeted by fuzzy little puff balls scurrying around the hayloft. One...two...three...four...wait, one...two...three...four... I know there were five kittens when we started. Where's five? Listen...what's that? We heard a faint muffled cry somewhere above us. Maybe one of the kittens didn't make it out of their hiding place. So up the mountain of hay bales I climbed looking for five. Listen...there it is again. But I couldn't tell where it was coming from. I reached into rafter space where the kittens had been hiding. Nothing. Then I heard it again, only this time I could tell it was below me. Since I was at the back of the hay bin, next to the wall, the mystery was coming unraveled. "Five" must have slipped between the last bale of hay and the cavity left in the open-framed wall. It hadn't been that long since we had brought in the new load of hay...enough to last til next summer. So somewhere below the five-story mountain of hay...was "five", huddled in the dark with no clue how to get out. So one by one, we de-constructed the mountain of hay bales. And of course they were cross-stacked to hold them in place, so it took moving twice as many to get just one row out. Finally I reached the bottom of the mountain, and there he was, "five" huddling next to the wall, looking very confused.

The next few weeks were filled with scurrying fur, two, three, four, five, plus Stella and Little Cat. Our "Cat Explosion" although cute for a while was getting out of hand. After a few calls to other fellow Alpaca owners, we still needed to find some new homes for the kittens. The math was going to get out of hand in a hurry.

So yesterday, we put an ad on Craigs List, and before the day was over, we had emails expressing interest in nearly all the kittens. Now comes the "fun" part...catching them. The plan was simple;morning mealtime always resulted in all a veritable feline free-for-all. So we put all the catfood out in a stall where we knew only the older cats could climb out of. But only three of the kittens joined in this time. The other two were playing in the stacks of scrap lumber across the barn. We now can truly appreciate the phrase "herding cats". Every time I would move the lumber, they would run under the tractor. Then we tried shooing them from under the tractor, and they were back under the wood. Meanwhile we decided to catch the two in the stall before they hatched a plan to escape. Even with two people in a ten foot stall, we had a dickens of a time catching them and getting them into the cat carrier. While were concentrating on these, we saw one of the kittens escape into the hay bin. Now we got you! Or so we thought. Up the hay mountain it leaped, and I was hot on its heels...until it slid between the last bale of hay and the wall...again. Luckily this time it was only two layers down, but much more agile. As I uncovered the escapee, it turned tail and crawled even deeper into the pile. Well, this was going nowhere fast, so we gave up and carried on with our morning chores. Eventually this one came out of hiding and was on the floor of the hay bin. Jo quickly snatched it up barehanded...something she now regrets as she tends her cat-scratched knuckles and wrist. Finally, with the others that had wandered into the stall, we finally had captured all five.

So they've been transfered to maximum security in the kitchen. And after the trauma of their capture has subsided, they've settled down and seem to be quite happy. Of the five, two have already found new homes, and we're just waiting for the phone to ring for the rest. Meanwhile Max and Dylan both have a taken a greater interest in them, now that they're within their grasp. "We're going to miss them". Well...yes, yes we will.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Gray Days of Winter

The day after Christmas was always such a melancholy day for me, starting when I was a child. Of course I know the true meaning of Christmas, and it always gives me cause to reflect on the year just about to finish. But it also marks the beginning of a long cold winter ahead. The prognosticators said we wouldn't have a white Christmas, and they were right. The snow is getting here just in time to miss all the festivities...early morning shredding of Christmas wrapping, cooking marathons, and a quiet dinner with just the four of us. It had been a long time since Jo and I had sat down at the table with our two sons, now nearly grown. Max has been off to college now for three semesters, and Dylan will finish High School this Spring.

And now we prepare for the first big storm of the season. Of course it won't be anything like last winter. Two feet of snow, on top of two more left us paralyzed for weeks. The alpacas could only huddle together in the barn, with only the occasional trip outside for necessities. But now, we're prepared. A new tractor in the barn gives us the ability to move those mountains of snow that are sure to come.

Other than the inconvenience of being stranded in the barn, the alpacas don't seem to mind. They've put on their best winter coats and seem to be just fine modeling their ice crystal overcoats. Now the true meaning of farming comes back to us. We take care of them, and they take care of us. By spring, the snow will be gone, and they'll be happy to shed their coats to enjoy the sunshine of summer.

Our intrepid barn cat, Stella, has certainly done her job, ridding the barn of squeaky invaders. But she's replaced them with her own crew of fluffy barn kittens. Her first, "Little Cat" is nearly grown now. And now her second litter brought five more little gray-striped puff balls. Now we just have to watch where we walk. Since the cold weather started, I put in a water delivery system that Jo calls "Smith Family Robinson" It's just a PVC pipe that doesn't freeze and allows us to fill buckets without trudging to the well. Stella thinks the best tasting water is only found at this new aqueduct. She patiently waits for the bucket to move so she can get a fresh drink from the well.

As we finish feeding, we now have to put the feeding dishes up on the fence posts, so we can find them when we come back in the morning to do it all again.

Good night, furry friends. Stay warm. Spring will be here before you know it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New Website-Coming Soon...FINALLY!

It seems like forever, because it's been forever since we started working our website. So long so, that even though it's not finished we decided to start over with a new design. Here's the home's a start at least. But now that people are telling us they're coming back but finding nothing new, it's time to "get off the dime" and get it done. At least by declaring it's happening, now the pressure's on to make it real. Stay tuned...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Adventures in "Power-Cooking"

Some wiseguy ( that would be me...Len) thought that cooking meals ahead for the week would be a good idea. Since we're always so busy, it just seemed like a logical way to save time...right? Well Jo had a book written by a woman who supposedly cooks meals for a month at a time. I thought that was a bit extreme, but she did have a version for a two-week plan. That seemed a bit more managable.

So we started out at the grocery store, pre-planned shopping list in hand. I'm thinking...hmm, this might actually work. And Jo started the "pre-cooking" regimine on Saturday evening. We had already committed to doing "herd health" on Sunday morning, which is generally very physically demanding. And it was. BUT...damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.

We finally STARTED cooking at about 2 pm. And we cooked, and we chopped and we mixed and we put stuff in freezer bags. Somewhere along the way, the woman who wrote the book miscalculated the fresh onion requirements, and the cooked chicken too. So we finally stopped with only 9 day's meals, but enough spaghetti sauce to make another meal so we whipped that up for dinner. As evidenced by the pictures here, we filled the sink with dirty pots, pans, measuring materials ad just about every other utensil in the kitchen. Most of them, many times over. I don't think the stove top will ever be the same. Finish line...6 pm. 10 meals in 4 hours. I guess I should shelve my plans for a new career as a short-order cook. I guess we'll see, if in ten days, it was all worth it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Garden - Half Time Show

The apples are in. Go figure. I guess that somewhere in between the scorching heat and deer, the apples have decided to throw in the core, so to speak. With our purchase of the farm, we got an apple tree...overgrown and a total mess. Number 1 Son has nurtured the tree, carefully trimming and culling. But this morning, he announced that they had to be picked. Plagued by some kind of rust-bug-rot thing, they were dropping, causing a particularly nasty bee problem. So our lackluster harvest has produced this pot of applesauce which will fill a few bags in the freezer.

This has been a busy year in the garden, yielding frozen or canned broccoli, asparagus from the neighbor, kosher dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, dilly beans, corn, tomatoes (still coming in), zucchini, strawberry and raspberry jam, pesto, and green beans, which live either in the freezer or on the shelf. We also experimented with carrots (not as easy to grow as one might think) and edible flowers (pretty on a salad). As the Farmer sees me hanging out in the kitchen with pots of boiling water, he asks me if it's worth it. After I got last month's electric bill, I'm not sure. Of course there were many factors involved with last month's $540 bill (mainly Met Ed estimating way low the month before and 7 fans running full time to keep the alpacas cool), but still it's hard to say. We have put many meals on the table that were very "local", which is trendy and hip (never thought I'd be trendy and hip at this age). We purchased a freezer pig and a quarter of a steer from the farmer up the road, so entrees consisting of the booty from the garden and the local meat from the freezer have pretty much been the fare around here. We're learning as we go along what types of plants work well for us, which ones to ditch, and are trying to learn some way to keep the bugs/disease from ruining what we're producing.

We've been experimenting with heirloom species, but honestly, to this '60s kid brought up on boxed cereal and pre-sweetened Koolaid with cyclamates, some of these veggies are just plain weird. Not "normal" like you'd pick up at the grocery store. Odd shapes & sizes. So as a cook, you have to make do and work around them. One thing I did do though was make a batch of pickled cucumbers pictured here with the Connecticut Field Pumpkins and some Giant pumpkin variety unknown to us.

I remember my grandmother making pickled cucumbers and fortunately, my mom had the recipe. This one is a winner and I offer it to you:

Pickled Cucumbers
from the recipe of
Edna Gertrude Heffentreyer Griffith

Cucumbers: Large ones are best, peel and slice thin
Onion: Use a sweet variety and slice thin
Mix the Cukes and Onion together in a bowl
On the stove, mix 1 cup white vinegar & 1 cup sugar. Heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the cukes and onion. Put a dinner plate on the bowl and place in the frig overnite.
The next day you can stick them in a jar and keep in the frig. Pickled cukes seem to have an indefinite shelf life as long as you keep them refrigerated (kind of like a Twinkie.) Enjoy!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Open Barn Weekend-The Preparations are On

After nearly three years owning Alpacas, and having them here on the farm for 18 months, it's time for our first Open Barn Weekend.

We just came back from the PAOBA show in York, and actually did pretty well. We placed in all but two categories. Now our attention turns to shearing day, which is this next Monday.

All the "critters" are suffering in the heat, so we've put on extra fans to cool them down. Try imagining wearing your warmest winter coat in 90 degree weather. We promised them all they can play in the sprinkler right after shearing.
So for "Open Barn", we'll have some of Jo's spinning friends over, and I'll be demonstrating hand weaving. Of course the Alpacas are the stars of the show. We're hoping to have our first baby arrive about that time. We'll be open Saturday and Sunday 5/29-30 from 10-4. We hope to see you there.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Color Everywhere

The Chives are blooming! A welcomed sight.

Things are springing up all over here at the ranch, including a horrible mouse problem at the barn that was quickly solved by the addition of 2 barn cats...Stella and Pest (named by the lady who so generously donated them to us). They are a bit camera shy, but we'll keep working on that.
We have another new addition...this is an old LeClerc loom from Quebec. It is over 50 years old. Bought it on Ebay in hot and heavy auction action. We will use it for demonstration purposes when we take the Take2 Alpaca show on the road at various events. Len started weaving a scarf to try it out.

The loom will be coming along with us real soon too.
This weekend is the annual Pa. Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association's "Breeders Showcase" event in York, PA at the Fairgrounds. We are taking the three cria from last year and our two yearling boys to show in Halter, Produce of Dam, and Get of Sire classes. We also have entries in Handspun Skein, Mill Spun Skein, Fiber Arts, and Photography. We have had a great season so far with year with two 4th places, one 6th place, a blue, and a Reserve Color Champion. We are so so pleased with last year's babies and excited about this year's crias which are due within the next few weeks. We have two more shows after this one.

In the meantime, we have been preparing some skeins of yarn to sell at several upcoming events. I've been a hand-dyer for years dyeing cotton cloth for quilts. Protein fiber, like alpaca and other wool take a different process, using dye, heat, and acid, which in this case is white vinegar. It kind of stinks up the whole house.

Here are jars of dye concentrate. The dye is added to salted hot water on the stove. The particular yarn we are using here is 60% alpaca, 40% Blue Faced Leicester (an English long wool rare breed sheep--the fleeces came from my friend Nancy Landis from Elizabethtown, PA). It's soft and rich with a satin sheen. It was spun for us at Worthington Acres Fiber Mill in Unityville, PA, so we have a 100% PA product, as our farm is a member of PA Preferred and we hope to produce as much in our state as possible, which helps support other small farms like us.

The white skein goes into the dye bath, comes to a boil, and simmers for 15 minutes. Then the vinegar is added and it simmers for another 25 minutes. I've been experimenting with dye recipes to get a reliable palate of colors that will work well year after year.

When the dye has been taken up by the fiber, it cools for a little and then is rinsed.

After rinsing to remove any leftover dye, it goes on our hi-tech drying racks. Sure, they look like deck furniture. Too bad I gave away the treadmill, that would work just as well!

It's a little time consuming, but well worth the effort!

Remember, if you are in the neighborhood and want to visit, please do! Just call first to make sure someone is here.... 610-823-7907.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Aftermath

See that bright green mass of grass just above the rope decorated with plastic bags from the grocery store? That is where all of the snow and subsequent 5 inches of rain went....and is still laying there. This situation has caused us undue problems. Today's temporary fix is the rope/bag combo which allows the alpacas to get out a bit without getting into the slop.
The main problem has been with Chief (center above). He developed a pretty bad infection in his feet from the dampness. This required an antibiotic and keeping his feet as dry as humanly possible for the foreseeable future. Not an easy task. We tried keeping him inside with just the other babies, but they weren't having it. So then we had to keep everyone inside. When we left them out, they immediately headed for the green grass growing where the water was laying. Just an awful situation that has been going on since the big melt and subsequent rains. But hopefully this temporary rigging will keep everyone healthy till it dries up.
We took the three babies to the Virginia Classic in Lexington, VA, in the beginning of March. It was a great show with Chief taking a 4th in his class, Jewel taking a blue and Reserve Champion in her class, and Izzy taking a 4th as well.

Around the farm...well, we purchased a Kubota BX25 this week, with a front end loader, 60" mower and backhoe. It will make life easier moving stuff around, digging out some stumps, mowing the back, 4. Cleaned the barn to make room for it yesterday and we're expecting delivery sometime this week. First job for it will be moving soil to fill these...

The new raised beds for the kitchen garden. I am really looking forward to having things growing again. Last year, we did tomatoes, swiss chard, lettuce, butternut squash (which makes the most amazing soup), peppers, eight ball zuchini, sunflowers, and a very tough variety of corn. So with the new seed catalogs come fresh hope. Soil is being ordered this week and son is getting picked up from college on Friday so he can help get these boxes filled. Managed to salvage some pots from last year with some very tired soil that will benefit greatly from a boost of new dirt. The spring brings good things after such a tough winter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blizzard's from DQ are Better

Saturday's storm left us with about a foot of snow...the nice dry fluffy kind. Then came today's storm...about another foot of snow...the heavy wet kind. These are the days when you wonder what made you become a small-time farmer in the first place.

Alpacas are wise animals...they step outside just for a minute and then it's right back into the barn.
After Saturday's storm, we were able to snowblow a track for the alpacas to go out and walk for a bit, but now it's back to square one.

In the interest of being scientific...I present Saturday's snowline (dirt line in the crosssection), with today's accumulation thus far...

As the happy owners of a killer snowblower (Cub Cadet with tank-style wheels), we are in as good a position as any to handle what Mother Nature can throw our way. But this snow, well, it was certainly pushing the limits. First pass with shovels and snowblower was at 9AM. Second pass was at 1:30 PM. Now...we're just waiting it out.

But here's the philosophical view of our snowy situation... As an office dwelling worker (even though it's a home office, ya still gotta work), I don't have too many reasons to venture out into the elements. But now I do. The animals need me. To lug feed, water, hay, clean up after them. And in return they give us fleece to spin, weave and sell, and hopefully four new babies in June. I know much more about how things work in our year and a half of full-time small-time farming....when the sun comes up, when it goes down, and when it looks like rain. I've learned what good hay looks like and the smell of a great sweet feed.

And even in lousy weather like this...making a plan to deal with the snow, doing the best you can, and still losing the battle...well, it makes one feel alive. And I guess that's what it's all about.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Time Flies

I can't believe it's been this long since we've posted anything new. It's definitely a case of "The Cobbler's kids go barefoot".

I guess I'll try to re-construct the highlights from this Fall. In late September I (Len) decided to go to a workshop to learn how to handweave. After all, we're raising animals that produce fleece, and Jo's been hand spinning for a bout a year now. I thought it time to get in the game. So I spent a week in East Berlin, PA at The Mannings. It's pretty much the Mecca for spinning and weaving in this area. At the end of the class, I ordered my own loom, after getting the confidenc ethat I could do this on my own. It took about 6 weeks to arrive, and I was glad I could still remember what I had learned. Here's a pic of the loom and a scarf in progress:
It's been pretty interesting since I can design and previsualize the project on computer using a free download software. The scarves have been coming off pretty regularly and most are selling as soon as they're finished. I do plan to put some on the website as soon as I can get a respectable inventory of material done.
We also participated in 5 weekends at Weaver's Orchard on Rt. 10 just south of Green Hills. We had a stall with a couple of animals for people to see and touch. Jo brought her spinnig wheel and demonstrated hand spinning. We had a craft for kids, learning how to use a drop spindle to spin yarn. We also had a basic inventory of Alpaca products to sell, from finger puppets to socks and rugs. For no more inventory than we had, we did pretty well. The weather didn't cooperate very well, though. We had at least two weekends wash out and a third ended early because of high wind. It was a good experience though. I'm sure we'll do it again next year. When we would arrive or leave, everyone got a kick out of our transportation mode. We just loaded our two boys into the back of the minivan and rode them down the road to the orchard.