We live and farm on 106 acres of steep hardwood rangeland (mostly oaks). Less than a quarter of that is viable for agriculture; besides, we want to keep the remainder undisturbed as much as possible. A variety of creatures live here – our domestic animals include sheep, chickens, two dogs, two house cats, and a fluctuating number of barn cats. Our wild co-habitants include mountain lions from time to time, coyotes, bobcats, deer, feral hogs, foxes, skunks, raccoons, squirrels and smaller rodents, occasional weasels, turkeys, hawks, and numerous other birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, etc.
There are those who urge us to cut down the trees, tear up the hillsides and put in wine grapes. After all, we live in the heart of grape country and the northern California wine industry, and that's where the money is. Growing fresh produce, it’s true that we’ll never get rich, but we are content raising healthy food for ourselves, for sale, and to give away.
Farming this way requires us to “recycle, repair, and use up.” We’re fortunate that my late father-in-law Murph was a saver. Anything that could be useful, he put aside for some future project. He tore down houses for the lumber and other building materials; when he pulled out fencing, he stacked the posts and rolled the wire. There are buckets and cans of screws, nuts and bolts stored in the woodshed, rolls of electrical wiring, stacks of various sized lumber from 2x4s to heavy planks. Before we buy “new,” we always check what’s here already.
For example, some old steel fence posts, pieces of heavy hog-wire fencing, and some twine provide the new peas with a perfect climbing frame. We use those giant-sized tin cans to guard newly planted tomato starts from insects, rodents and birds. Some of our raised beds were framed up with old railroad ties.
Certainly it's not always the easiest way to farm. Sometimes I just wish we could go to the hardware store or the farm supply and buy just what we need. But when I see my mother-in-law’s living room floor gleaming in the sunlight, I remember my husband and son working those old boards, fitting them together, sanding them smooth again. Once they were refinished, the floor was beautiful. Something that would have been thrown away became useful once again. Sustainable living, sustainable farming … one step at a time.
Some years ago we had a flock of about 35 mixed breed ewes, white face and black face. We had a tall Suffolk buck and a not-so-tall but bulkier Rambouillet out of Texas. Later, we discovered that a newer breed called “Finnsheep” (from Finland originally) would produce not only twins, but triplets, quads and even five lambs at a time. We added a Finnsheep ram, four Finn ewes, and were convinced that our new breeding program was our ticket to big money.
Not only did the Finn ewes produce multiples, all the ewes bred by the Finn ram produced “litters.” That year we had nine sets of triplets and four sets of quads, with the rest twins and a few singles. We also had 11 bummers – after all, ewes only have two teats, and though the mothers were usually willing, they just didn’t have the capacity to feed three, much less four.
My husband built a “milk bar” – using a large ice chest he installed six lamb-sized black rubber nipples on each side. Our days began with making enough milk to fill the insulated box. As the lambs grew, we had to make milk more frequently. Lamb milk replacer (think powdered “baby formula”) doesn’t come cheap, and we learned an expensive lesson. You don’t make much profit from bummer lambs, and they take an inordinate amount of time and effort. I’m the “softy” in the family and yes, young lambs are cute for a few weeks, but “cute” doesn’t cut it when every few hours you’ve got to make milk and run up to the barn and there’s no payoff when the lambs are finally market size.
Several years later, after the bottom fell out of the wool market and lamb prices dropped to a new low, we got out of the sheep business. Later when we decided to give it one more try, we went for Barbados Blackbellies, a hair sheep breed (no shearing) known for ease in lambing, good mothering, and being disease resistant. We had given up our fantasies of big money; all we were really looking for was manure for our produce garden and some help with grass control. The lambs the flock produced would help defray the cost of the supplemental feed when there was no grass.
Mostly our flock has fulfilled our priorities, that is, they did until last week. A young ewe, lambing for the first time, appeared one morning with a nice sized lamb following close at her side. They walked from the barn and stopped under the largest olive tree where the lamb curled up to sleep. Mama began to paw the ground and nose the grass and the lamb. I pointed her out to my husband and said, “She’s looking for another lamb."
He went back to the barn and I walked down the hill to the house. After 20 minutes or so, I got a phone call. “We’ve got a problem,” said Zack. “I found a lamb caught between the wall and the squeeze chute … and that’s not all. I found another one that had crawled under the bottom rail and was behind the hay bales.”
It took us a good part of the morning to sort things out and we weren’t totally successful. The ewe took one look at the first lost lamb and flipped her head knocking him away. In the meantime, another first-time ewe appeared and claimed the other lost lamb, but neither were interested in the first one. We tried numerous times to “reunite” them, but finally looked at each other and rolled our eyes and said at the same time “bummer.”
Over the next few days, I quickly remembered what a “bummer” an orphan could be, although he was indeed a cute little thing. On the fifth day, my mother-in-law came down to tell me a couple at her church wanted the lamb. She was a bit taken aback when I shouted, “Yes!” and pumped my fist in the air. What a good ending to the "tale" of the lost lamb. These folks care for foster children (six at the present time). The kids were excited as could be and the lamb would get lots of attention from them. Chuckling, I did ask if my mother-in-law had explained our “no return policy.” As my husband’s been known to say, “Hey, you touched him last.”
Several years ago while I was at work, my husband and my mother-in-law walked up to the upper portion of our farm to check the spring box. Unfortunately there was a surprise waiting for them, an underground yellow jacket nest hidden in the tall grass just a few feet from the concrete spring box. Both of them incurred multiple stings, including many on their upper torsoes and heads.
By the time they ran, walked and stumbled down to Mary's house, she was feeling a bit strange so Zack drove her (somewhat above the speed limit) to the nearest emergency room about 20 miles away in the next town. While she was receiving treatment, in the waiting room, my husband started having chest pains and difficulty breathing. He ended up requiring a shot of adrenalin and was sent home with a bee sting kit.
I've never had trouble with bee, yellow jacket, or wasp stings, at least not until last week. I had parked the car and was unloading groceries when I felt a sharp burning pain on the middle finger of my right hand. A large honey bee clung there, its stinger stuck fast in my top finger joint. I shook off the bee and then removed the rather large stinger that had a small gob of bee tissue on the end. I have read that this is the bee's venom sac.
As I said, I'd never had much reaction to stings so I continued unloading the car, occasionally blowing on the finger which felt like it was on fire. About twenty minutes later I realized my finger had begun to swell and was already inflamed. Assuming this was typical of a bee sting, I ignored it. Within a few hours, the finger was twice its normal size and the swelling had begun to spread to the top and palm of my hand. I finally followed my husband's and son's advice and coated the finger in a thick baking soda paste. It felt cool and the itching and pain eased up a bit, so I did this several times that evening.
Next morning, the entire hand was swollen down past the wrist. Did I call the doctor? No, it was Saturday and I was determined that I was not going to the Emergency Room for a bee sting. Yes, I know they can be dangerous, but I was suffering from the old, "It won't happen to me" syndrome. Besides, I have this bizarre fear of being thought a wimp. So I did the most logical (HA!) thing and sent out a plea on Facebook asking for home bee sting remedies.
I must admit that more than a few of my FB friends said "GO TO THE DOCTOR," but I decided that the home remedies would do the trick — the suggestions were numerous from my own baking soda paste to unseasoned meat tenderizer paste (just mix baking soda or meat tenderizer with enough water to make a thick paste - also you can use a combination of both). Several folks said that Preparation H works, while one person said that, as strange as it sounded, toothpaste helps. One down-to-earth person said that the best treatment is ice packs for 20 minutes at a time.
Well, I did find relief, but in all honesty, I couldn't tell you with any certainty what did the trick because I basically tried them all except for Preparation H. I will say that the meat tenderizer paste felt the best - very cooling and it relieved the awful itching. (My husband reminded me that when he had his own "stinging" experience, the ER doctor told him to keep unseasoned meat tenderizer on hand.) The ice packs also helped the itching some and reduced the swelling. I have decided that I will tell my doctor what happened — I even have pictures (see below). Lastly, if you have a serious reaction to a bee or wasp sting, the best thing would be to seek medical advice. After all, statistics show that more people die from bee stings than from snakebite.
Living in the country does have its risks. Yellow jackets are quite common as well as other stinging creatures. We do have rattlesnakes, but though we lost a lamb to snake bite several years ago, we seldom encounter rattlesnakes. But then life everywhere has its dangers, right? When I visit friends in the city, I can't help but wonder who's in trouble when I hear the fire, police and ambulance sirens all night long. As for me, I'll take the dangers of country living any day over the hazards of city living, not to mention the absence of the wild beauty we enjoy here.
Before I close, here's a funny song for those of you old enough to remember Perry Como. (Be forewarned: it's a "groaner.")
When you wade in the sea
and an eel bites your knee,
it's "a Moray."
Here in Northern California, months of drought brought creek, river and lake water levels to an all-time low. However, good news came with a light rain on Sunday, Feb. 2, and it’s been raining some every day since. While it hasn’t been what my late father-in-law called a “gulley-washer,” the half-inch one day, three-quarters inch the next has been cool and wet and very welcome.
Already I’ve noticed green spreading a bit across hills that have held that dry look of summer far too long. I swear you can almost hear the oak, redwood and bay laurel trees slurping up the moisture, while our fruit, olive and nut trees are certainly doing the same. Once we let the sheep out in the morning, they stay outside and don’t often seek shelter under the trees or return to the barn even when it reaches a steady downpour.
The artichokes soaking up the rain.
How quickly life changes, especially in the country. Last week, fears of an arid future, this week, according to the weather predictors, it will rain at least through this coming Sunday. While we certainly need more, this just might be enough to change what was looking like a rather bleak year for area farmers, like the neighbor who has vineyards, another who raises olives, and our own sustainable produce operation.
We’ve finished our seed sorting and will be reviewing what we want to buy. We’ll try to keep purchases to a minimum by using saved seeds from the the produce that proved to be popular with customers and produced a high yield. We’ll also use those seeds to begin our own starts in the greenhouse.
Last year, we purchased some starts from a reputable nursery and found we had imported a problematic bug, extremely prolific and hard to control. We also bought some seeds from another respectable source and of those 8 to 9 packages, we had a number of low germinators and later, low yield plants.
Our specialty is heirloom tomatoes. Every year we deal with the dilemma of whether to raise a limited number of tomatoes in larger numbers or many varieties in smaller amounts. I vote for finding 6 to 7 varieties that have proven themselves, while my husband loves to offer variety. Usually we compromise, but somehow always end up with 15 or more kinds, especially counting the cherry tomatoes. It works out – I’m always glad when we have so many different, delicious tomatoes to eat, sell and give away. Now with the rain, we have hope of all that abundance.
Finally, a rainy day at Laurelwood.
I know that rain doesn’t suit everyone and sometimes limits people’s activities. Worse than that, in the case of my homeless friends, it means they may find themselves wet and miserable or their campsites flooded out, and I’m sorry for that. But the truth is, we must have rain to survive – all of us – people, animals, plants, the soil, rivers, oceans, the earth itself. So when the rain begins after a long dry spell, I feel great relief and gratitude along with the sense that in the bigger picture, all is well.
On January 17, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in much of the state’s agricultural counties. This has been the driest year on record since they started keeping track more than 100 years ago. In 1976-77, a few years before I married into the family, my husband told me they had to truck in water for the stock, limit personal bathing to the absolute minimum, and make weekly trips to the Laundromat. We’re almost at that point now.
Of course, we already knew we were approaching an emergency water shortage. Last weekend we bought additional hay for our small flock, something we never do this time of year. But here it is, just a few weeks after New Year's, and the hills are dry and dusty with very little green, far different from the usual deep grass of winter. We’ve had to raise the flock’s hay intake – lately when I whistle for the dog, the sheep come running, hoping that I’ll give them leftover produce like last summer and fall or even just some weeds I’ve pulled.
What’s even scarier is that the first four of our ewes have lambed in the last few days giving us three singles and only one set of twins. Only rarely do our Barbados Black Bellies deliver singles. I’ve begun to wonder whether, like some of the wild animals, their reproductive systems naturally shut down when food is scarce.
No question, food for the sheep is scarce. Below is a photo showing the old Italian prune orchard (not many trees still standing). With all the brown grass, if the photograph had been taken in July, there would be nothing amiss. Unfortunately, this was taken a few weeks ago. (The roof of our house can be seen at the left in the trees at mid-picture.)
At the grocery store checkout the other day, I heard someone raving about the “great weather.” “This is just like Hawaii,” said a tall white-haired man in shorts, “only better – none of that awful humidity.” His cart held bananas, tomatoes, milk and oranges. When the prices rise on fresh produce, dairy products and meat, will he realize the cause? I know there are dairy farmers considering reducing their herds and farmers over near Delano and Sacramento who are shifting their water from their row crops to almonds, peaches and other trees. If trees wither up and die, it takes a lot longer to replace them than it does vegetables.
This is the time of year we pore over seed catalogs and sift through our saved seeds. We review what sold last season and what didn’t, what we liked and what we didn’t. Once we’ve chosen what we’ll plant, we draw up a garden plan to make sure we rotate and that each plant is in the best location. This year we have a harder decision, a decision about water. We have good water here, but it comes from natural springs and it supplies two homes, two barns, grapevines, fruit and nut trees, and an enormous garden. The water system is gravity fed – no well, no pump.
We hope to have our garden plans for 2014 finished by the end of the week. Each day I check the skies for signs of rain. My husband checks the long-term Internet weather projections, national and local. So far, we’ve been fortunate, but we must decide whether we need to cut back on our planting, which of course means a drop in income.
We have family, friends, a roof over our heads, more than enough good work, and the pantry is full. I wish the same for others who work the land or raise stock and, for that matter, for all those who find themselves facing hard times. Hard times are a part of everyone's life, but when I can't sleep, I have learned to quiet my anxious heart by saying like a mantra, "Bless and release, just bless and release."
I'm back after a long absence from blogging – extra responsibilities here at Laurelwood and in my other work. Then Christmas week arrived and most things were put on hold except absolutely necessary chores – feeding and watering stock and chickens, water problems, and bringing in wood. We had company most of the week, an old friend from San Diego for five days plus nine around the table for Christmas dinner. Now we feel like we're more behind than usual, but as an old farmer from Kentucky told me, "What don't get done today, will be waitin' there tomorrow."
So yesterday we were back at it. Before leaving for errands in town, I cleaned the chicken coop and pruned the antique rose bush, the one supposedly a long ago gift from Luther Burbank himself. While I worked, I thought of how a few days before Christmas, one of our young hens managed to elude an early death. I've named her Miss Houdini because she, too, is an escape artist. Usually that's not a problem because when you find her wandering, she comes right to your feet and squats to be picked up.
On Monday before Christmas, I was inside making cookies when my visiting son asked what the chickens were fussing about. I blithely said, "Oh, one probably just laid an egg." Jubal wandered over to the kitchen sink for a drink and suddenly shouted, dropped the glass, and ran outside yelling, "Red tail hawk." I stumbled after him, also yelling. Miss Houdini was huddled under a tree in the midst of a tangle of limbs, holding tight to a branch, a large array of feathers scattered on the ground all around her.
The hawk was making another pass, trying to snatch the hen when Jubal threw a large wood chunk. The bird made a wide, sweeping circle about a foot above the yard, rose over the redwood trees and disappeared to the north. Except for looking a bit bedraggled with somewhat skimpy feathers, Miss Houdini seemed no worse for wear. Once back with her coop mates, she briskly fluffed up her remaining feathers and seemed to strut a bit with the excitement of her adventure.
Predators are a part of life here. We have coyotes, weasels, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, and occasionally, a mountain lion. Eight summers ago we lost five market lambs to a cougar, four in one night, one a week later. The lambs were killed so near our house that the federal trapper warned us not to go out at night. Because we have three drive-through gates on our road, that was impossible – stop, get out, open the gate, get back in, drive through, get out, close the gate. On the nights I returned to the ranch after dark, I played country music really loud on my car radio, hoping the noise would keep danger at a distance.
Eventually the trapper caught the young female a mere 50 feet from our back door. I mourn the animals we lose to predators, but I also love the wild creatures and recognize that they are only following natural instinct. Besides, we are the invaders, the ones who continually push the boundaries of wilderness farther and farther back.
So how do we protect our animals causing the least harm to the wild ones? For us, it was a matter of predator-proofing our largest barn and barning our sheep at night. (We put heavy wire stock fencing over all openings.) We thought our hens were well protected inside a pen constructed of cyclone fencing sunk in concrete and several layers of chicken wire covering the top. Sad to say, we learned the hard way that they were not safe and secure. One morning not long ago I found half of them dead, eviscerated by a weasel. Now they, too, are put in at night inside a wooden coop with doors and windows closed
But the richness of our days includes all these experiences, whether joy-filled or the ones that leave our hearts heavy. Living in close relationship to the natural world is nothing less than a wonder. After we completed Christmas dinner, feeling full and somewhat dazed, I was glad when someone suggested a walk. Five of us made our way to the upper end of the ranch, walking the mile from my mother-in-law's door and back.
When we reached the highest point, we stood there gazing south towards San Francisco, 90 miles distant and hidden behind several ridges. One of our Christmas guests, a first-time visitor, asked, "Do you realize how lucky you are to live here?" Certainly most of the time I do and even when I'm too distracted by work and the responsibilities of all that needs to be done, something will remind me.
Those times come when I least expect them. Just below our driveway one night, a fox crossed the road in the light of my headlights, looked back once with shining eyes before lightly springing over the berm to disappear in the darkness. In my first winter here, when it snowed, my husband taught me that an old car hood makes a fine sled, me squealing like I was 12 again. Standing in the yard one warm summer evening I saw the northern lights, my first and only time to see that rare and mysterious sight. Lucky? Fortunate? Blessed? Oh, yes…
Two weeks ago, my husband Zack, his mother Mary, and I spent a half day cutting out two trees that had fallen in the last year. One not only snapped off about ten feet up, but it rested precariously on its neighbor. The large trunk was partially split and I knew it might be trouble. Even Zack called it a "widow-maker" which did not reassure me that all would go well.
Zack evaluates a widowmaker.
Watching Zack make those first careful cuts with the chainsaw, I wished his grandfather still lived so he could see my husband put the tree down right where he wanted it. Perhaps it's in Zack's blood. His Grandpa Mac logged back in the days when even the biggest trees were cut by hand using enormous crosscut saws that required a man on either end. That was here in big tree country, too, mostly in coastal redwoods. The family stories that have been passed on from one generation to the next tell that one of those trees was so enormous that after it was down, they used the low, flat stump as a dance floor.
While Zack manned the saw, Mary and I hauled brush to a pile that by noon ran 12 to 15 feet long and rose above our heads. We also gathered the rounds together, so heavy we rolled most of them, thick slices of the large trunks that would dry there for the winter to be split next year. My late father-in-law once told me that wood heat is best… "It heats you when you cut it, load it, stack it, carry it in, and last of all, when you burn it." He was certainly right about that — within minutes, we were pulling off our jackets.
When I first came to live here, we used axes, splitting mauls, and wedges to split our firewood, several hard days' work for our rather motley crew. Now we use a hydraulic splitter, sometimes rented, or thanks to a neighbor's generosity. In one day we'll be able to split the oak rounds that we cut last year, more cords than we need all year.
Visitors to the farm often say, "Oh, it's so peaceful here … you're so lucky." They're right, though I call it blessed. Surrounded by such beauty — Alexander Valley far below, the sheep calling to one another in a nearby pasture, a mockingbird that warns us every time we get too close to its nest, heavy fog that rolls in breaking a week-long heat wave — vacationers often don't see that country life is filled with the rhythm of work. But in the 32 years since I arrived here, I've come to see that work — this work — has its own peace, a peace that reaches far deeper than a day spent idling in the sun, although certainly that can be nice, too.
That day in the woods, all did go well. Whenever my husband stopped to refill the gas or sharpen the saw chain, Mary and I would drop to the ground, ease our backs, and share a drink of water. Zack would join us for a few minutes, eat a cookie and chat. Then the chainsaw's sharp buzz would remind us to put opur earplugs back in and get back to it, gathering the wood that will keep us cozy in the months to come.