things Ron thinks of when he’s trying not to think about running while running: or, farm tall tales

A guest blog post from Ron.

Or, story time with Ron.

Taking the sheep out for pizza

At a recent New Year’s Day gathering, a neighbor asked about winter feeding of our sheep, and whether they get a bit bored with hay all the time. “Don’t they crave a bit of variety” she asked? I explained that the hay is simply dried pasture, just as they eat in the summer, and that there may well be 50 species of grasses and forbs in there. All they really need. I did not discuss the evolutionary wonders of the ruminant digestive system that takes grass, forbs, even bark and small sticks, and turns it into muscle and bone and wool. Again, all they need!

However, this question stuck in my mind and I began to wonder if our wooly charges might not like a little treat now and again. We have a red wooden box in our entry way where profits (HA!) from wool and egg sales collect. I pointed out to my wife that this was likely enough to take the sheep out for pizza! Won’t that be fun! Sara was skeptical but supportive, but wisely suggested reservations as a table for 14 (12 sheep, 2 humans) can be hard to come by on a Friday night in Ithaca. So I called Simeon’s (a fancy restaurant with great pizza) on The Commons in Ithaca and reserved a table for 14, but said we would only need two chairs as most of our party prefers to eat standing.

With that the only challenge was transportation the 7 miles to downtown Ithaca as we only have a Subaru Forester and a Nissan Leaf.  However, Navajo-Churro sheep are not that big, both cars seat 4 plus driver plus the Forester can take two more in the back, and Flora and Rosa (our little lambs) could ride on our laps behind the steering wheel. This worked fine, but seat belts were an issue, so we hoped we did not get pulled over, and Flora on my lap kept wanting to steer! I let her steer on Snyder Hill Road, but when we hit the traffic of town I insisted I take over.

When we arrived at Simeon’s, and I held the door for our sheep and my lovely wife, the staff seemed a bit surprised about the non-human makeup of their guests. However, this is Ithaca where the unexpected is to be expected. They showed us to our large table and shortly brought out 6 large, vegetarian pizzas and one small pepperoni for me. Being the good shepherd I had ordered in advance as sheep are not know for patience when it is time to eat. The sheep dug in to their slices with their usual quiet enthusiasm, but I did notice Crescent (our drama queen ewe) pushing aside the artichoke hearts! I thought she would crave pickled foods as she is pregnant.

As I enjoyed my pepperoni pizza and quietly visited with Sara, I noticed a few missing noses. I did a quick check and sure enough Joseph and Paco (our teenage wether boys) were missing. Being the good shepherd I went on a search and quickly found them pulled up to the bar, precariously balanced on the bar stools, and drinking a golden liquid from two bowls under the eye of the attentive barkeep. I was alarmed as I assumed it was beer! Barley, hops, and other grains are all fine for sheep, but the bubbles could be disastrous, not to mention alcohol in the brains of adolescent sheep boys! I approached the bar with urgency, but was intercepted by the barkeep who assured me it was non-sparkling, non-alcoholic apple cider. Turns out she was a Cornell vet student working nights, and was well-versed in the wonders and limitations of ruminant biology.  I made a silent thanks for the wonders of Ithaca, and returned to our meal.

In short order the pizza was gone, and we had a bit of a mess! Sheep are not known for their table manners. We asked for the bill and I suggested a 25% tip, but Sara pointed out the piles of sheep poop and pee collecting on the polished hard wood floors and suggested a more generous 30%. “We want to be sure we are welcome in the future,” she said.

A week later, when Friday night arrived again, I wondered if the sheep would want another town adventure. I am not sure I want this to be a weekly thing! However, they were quite content with their hay, clean water, mineral salts, and warm and dry sheep shack. Those things, along with room to run and protection from coyotes (and occasional snuggles from their humans), are really all sheep ask of the world. Perhaps their human companions could learn a bit from that!

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joys and sorrows

The Unitarian church has a moment in their services where they ask folks to share “joys and sorrows.” The few blog posts of 2018 definitely fall under the sorrows category. Then there are all those I haven’t written–and won’t write–about in a public space.

2018 has been full of challenges and sorrows, but there have been some joys–first and foremost, our “new” lambs Rosa and Flora, born May 9.

5.13.18 5890

Here they are at four days old (Rosa on L, Flora on R).

Cinnamon went into labor under the pine trees with the sheep, once again, giving her plenty of room. That said, her first lambs, Chaco and Paco, hung out closer than the rest. It was fascinating to watch. They knew something was happening, but they gave their mom some room.

She had Rosa easily. Ron and I watched from the deck. We were both a little worried at first because Rosa didn’t move much and took some time to get up. In the end, she was healthy and fine, but her calm, serene character seemed to appear at the moment of birth. She wasn’t rushed to get up and about, and enter the world.

When Cinnamon had Chaco and Paco, they came just 10 minutes apart. We suspected she was having twins again, but waited and waited. No second lamb. Cinnamon took care of Rosa, Paco gently greeted her (!), and Ron was able to check and confirm she was a girl–only the second of seven lambs born on our farm by that point (!).

An hour and 10 minutes passed. Then Cinnamon went into labor mode again and out popped Flora, all white and wiggly from the start. She squirmed and got up, Cinnamon cleaning her up. Once again, Flora’s busy self seemed to appear from the moment of birth. And what a blessing that Cinnamon gave birth this time to twin girls.

Boy lambs, 5; girl lambs 3.

We were relieved that super ewe-mom Cinnamon had healthy lambs and both have flourished. They are pretty and adorable, and it’s been fun, once again, to watch them grow up. And once again, sheep are not monolithic, flighty, stupid creatures lacking personality or differentiation. We’re amused by their personalities and also how they’ve evolved.

For instance, Flora was curious, but didn’t really want anything to do with us until about a month ago. Then she suddenly decided I was okay and accepted full on pets and snuggles. Meanwhile, Rosa, was initially the friendliest and most calm lamb of those born on the farm. However, bigger at birth and ever since, we think she has already gone through sheepie puberty (!) and is now in a grumpy teenager phase. We hope she grows out of it.

There have been too many sorrows on and off the farm in 2018–and not just small ones. I especially am trying to hang onto the good things.

Two of those things are named Rosa and Flora.

 

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more dead animals (seriously)

I helped Ron with the morning farm chores late Christmas morning. I often “help,” not help, but I did go into the chicken coop to check the feeder, see if they needed any more hay under their roosts, and so forth.

Then I found a dead chicken in the corner by their feeder.

Sigh.

Seriously???

I came out of the coop, found Ron, and told him that there was a dead chicken in the coop.

“More dead animals,” Ron grumbled.

Seriously.

As I went about the rest of the farm chores that morning, this came to mind:

Dear universe,

We don’t need any more dead animals right now, thankyouverymuch. Your messages about mortality, impermanence, and (non)attachment have been loud and clear. We are well aware of your expertise in Buddhism. No need to demonstrate it further. We would really appreciate a break just about now.

All best,

Sara, Ron, & the animals

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merry diego

I woke up early this morning first thinking about Christmas.

Then I started thinking about Diego.

The vet did a necropsy yesterday because, as she said, she “really” wanted to know what had happened. She believes he died of alpaca fever. We’ll know after the tissue results come back.

After she left, Ron took Diego into our woods so that he can nourish the plants and animals of the forest ecosystem. We both find comfort knowing that he will remain on the farm. But as I was thinking about the woods and cycles yesterday, it felt even more bittersweet.

Diego loved the woods. He loved to wander, especially at the forest edge. He liked to do this regardless of activity or season, but he seemed to exile himself to the woods after he’d been cooped up with the sheep for some period of time. This was particularly true last winter when he was still uncomfortable with the enclosed space of the sheep shack, but if it got cold and windy enough, he’d put himself in there. Once the weather improved though, he’d get out of there and often send himself down to the woods for a little time away from the sheep. We laughed about it because some of Diego’s characteristics–introverted, desiring quiet–we share.

I’m trying to remember other good stories about Diego–hence merry Diego. Here are a few more.

Chaco & Paco

Diego loved his lambs. Period. But last year he was especially fond of Chaco and Paco, Cinnamon’s first lambs. Yesterday I was trying to think about why he was so fond of those two when we had five lambs in spring 2017. Crescent and Joseph were particularly bonded with us thanks to their delinquent mom, Junie, who initially rejected them. PJ was a solo birth and very bonded with his mom, Brownie; until a few months ago, he’d still lay down right next to her to rest, even though he was now bigger than her.

Ron said over dinner last night that Chaco was one of the first sheep to come up to Diego when we were able to integrate him with the flock (thereby making a flerd–flock + herd). I didn’t remember that. But for whatever reason(s), Diego hung around Chaco and Paco, and let them hang out with him.

Crescent and the (not) udder

Last spring, Crescent was one of those five lambs and the only girl. Yesterday morning, I suddenly remembered amid my sadness that soon after Diego was integrated with the flock, she’d wander under his legs so she was standing under his belly. As Ron says, she’s a little sh^t so she could get entirely under his body, even though Diego was a small male llama.

It gets better. She did this just a handful of times, but Crescent would get under Diego and start looking around. We swear that she was looking for an udder.

Poor Crescent (and Joseph). Their first week was so rough given that their mom rejected them and we had to co-parent them to teach the not-so-happy family to be functional. Maybe she was confused. Maybe she wanted Diego to be her mother. Maybe she needed therapy.

At any rate, Crescent would get under Diego, clearly annoying him, but he’d gently step a bit to the side to try to get her out of the way. She seemed oblivious. The behavior didn’t last long, but it was one of many examples of Diego’s remarkable patience with his lambs.

Fetching Paco

Ron reminded me of this story. One day all the sheep were sleeping and resting. When they do this, they tend to hang out in the same area, but spread out a bit. All the sheep woke up and eventually wandered off to the same patch of pasture to graze.

Except for Paco.

Poor Paco woke up, looked around, and started baaing in a panic. Sheep, especially lambs, will do this. They think they’ve lost the flock or their mom, and instead of looking around a bit more, instead go into panic mode.

Diego was with the sheep in the pasture. He heard Paco and jogged over. Then he did his llama inquisitive voice, “hmmmmmm???” He turned and slowly started jogging back to the flock. Paco followed and was reunited with his sheep family.

Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap for many good reasons. But it’s hard not to interpret Diego’s behavior through anthropomorphism.

Diego and the swimming pool

This one I remembered very early this morning as I was still lying in bed thinking about Christmas and Diego.

Diego didn’t like summer heat. He’d whine about it in his llama humming. “I’m hot. I’m hot. I’m hooooooooooooot.”

Then Diego discovered that the large sheep water feeder could serve as a small swimming pool.

It drove Ron nuts.

Diego would put his front legs in the feeder/pool, standing there up to his knees in water, looking pretty darn pleased with himself. And getting all the dirt, poop, grass, hay bits, and whatever else into the formerly clean water.

Like I said, it drove Ron nuts.

Pretty quickly Ron figured out that we couldn’t keep Diego out of the larger sheep water feeder. However, we had another smaller one that he generally didn’t turn into his personal pool. He put his feet in there a few times, but especially if he had the larger water feeder available, he’d leave the smaller one alone. So instead of having two sheep water feeders in the peak of summer when the critters needed the water, we had one small feeder and a Diego pool.

Llama 1, shepherd 0.

Racing the wind

This one is going to make me cry (again).

Some time early this fall (I wish I could remember when), we got to see Diego race the wind.

It must have been after the summer heat and humidity were over. It was during those crisp fall days that are perfect weather. I was standing at the kitchen sink and window, and suddenly Diego raced by.

I was a bit concerned that something was wrong so I tried to see what was going on. I couldn’t see much, but a few seconds later, Diego raced back the opposite direction. We have 650 feet of road frontage. He wasn’t racing from one property boundary to the other, but he was running the greater width of our pasture, probably something like 300 or 400 feet.

He did this many times. I started counting a few times after he had already gone by. Now, because enough time has passed, I no longer remember how many round trips he completed. But the number 9 sticks in my mind.

He ran, in full camelid sprint, from the western side of our pasture, past the house, to the east. Ten seconds later, here he was, running west.

I called Ron to watch because it was so funny–and impressive. We saw Diego walk and jog most of the time. Camilids jog in a funny way. Their anatomy is such that they look silly when they jog.

Full run, though. They are beautiful and distinguished.

There Diego was, running west to east, and back again, something like 9 round trips. At one point, he took a short break, putting his front legs, yes, in the sheep water feeder, a.k.a. Diego’s mini swimming pool. Even fall weather can be hot when you are doing sprint reps across a pasture. And then he was back at it again, running west to east, and west again.

This image of him running full speed across the grass of our pasture has been in my mind a lot the past 36 hours. Diego looked so happy and free. I’m trying to remember him that way.

Merry Diego.



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our friend diego

2018 has been a very difficult year. Some of you know some of the reasons why.

Unfortunately, the year is nearing its close with another sad note: the unexpected death of our guard llama, Diego.

About two months ago, he was acting a bit lethargic and “not himself.” We had the vet come out and check him out. She initially found nothing, but ran standard blood tests and then identified a specific kind of liver fluke. We dewormed him. He seemed to be acting like his normal self ever since.

Then Friday evening was the perfect storm of weather events. As the vet who came out Sunday morning on the emergency call said, this is the perfect weather to make animals really sick. Alas, she knows.

Friday was strangely warm, almost 60 F. It was also raining for much of the day. In short, Diego got soaked.

Then between dusk and around 7 in the evening, the weather changed quickly. The weather patterns started to come in from the north/northwest, not south like earlier. It got windier and much colder. The temperature dropped to about freezing in the space of an hour or two. And we got an inch of snow overnight.

When Ron went out to check on the animals Saturday morning around 8:30 am, Diego was lying listless near his favorite hay feeder. It was clear he had spent the night outside when he should have been in the sheep shack with the sheep.

A mild version of this weather change and staying outside behavior happened last winter. But at that point Diego was uncomfortable going into the enclosed sheep shack. This winter—or the start of it—he had gotten accustomed to the shack and was entirely comfortable going in there, with or without sheep. But he didn’t that night for some reason.

Ron put him in the shack with a space heater, grain, water, and hay. We shut the ramp of the shack and attached a blanket to the top half of the opening. Diego perked up almost right away and scarfed up the grain treats. He spent almost four hours in there. We thought he would get warm and dry, and be okay.

We checked on him at 1:30 Saturday afternoon. He seemed a bit better so we decided to let him out to pasture and watch him.

Around 3, Ron went out again and Diego was again lying down outside, lethargic. We brought him into the garage, turned on the heaters, gave him more grain, water, and hay, and hoped that a night in the garage would turn him around.

Around 8 Sunday morning, we checked on him. He was still not his normal self. Out of options, we called Cornell vet. Of course, emergency call on the weekend. One of their exceedingly competent vets came out. Diego was still mildly hyperthermic, but she was also concerned about a different underlying health issue, perhaps those liver flukes. Perhaps that issue made him more vulnerable to hyperthermia, which then worsened his condition. Needless to say, a horrible cycle. She treated him on multiple fronts, but we did not opt to hospitalize Diego (!).

Ron checked on him around 2. Diego stood up strongly when Ron came in the garage. He also laid down after a bit with purpose and agency. I think his response then gave us some false hope that he would be able to turn the corner.

Indeed, when we both checked on him at 4:30, he did not look good. We didn’t discuss it then, but neither of us thought he’d make it through the night. Instead, when we went out there at 8, he was already gone.

As our guard llama, Diego had such an important role on the farm. Just a few weeks ago, Ron heard him alarm call, turned, and saw the sheep huddled behind him in an impossibly small ball. We have electric fencing, but we slept easier knowing Diego was out there with them.

Llamas are funny creatures. They don’t like to be touched or petted. Our relationship with Diego was not like those with the sheep, many of whom actively come up to visit us and ask for pets. He was very much a working animal. His job was to protect his sheep. But he also had evolving relationships with his sheep and us. Just yesterday, after we let him out of the shack, Tatanka, Half Moon, and Paco immediately went up to Diego. It was obvious they were greeting him after a few hours of separation.

I’m trying to remember the sweet and funny stories with Diego, but mostly 2018 feels like a year of sorrows.

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(farm)life is what happens when you make other plans

Early this morning I was sitting down to write my first blog post since January 1 (!) when Ron came into the house and said, “we have a problem.”

Never a good sentence to utter, whether it relates to family, work, farm, or anything else.

A skunk was in the corner of the hen house, looking lethargic and sick. In fact, very lethargic and very sick.

What to do?

Instead of writing my intended post–“pssttt… baaaaaaak” (a sheep joke–get it? baaaaaaak??)–here I am writing about the unexpected challenges of the farm.

Yet, as goes the farm, so goes life–and vice versa.

Back to the skunk. We looked at the poor skunk, talked about our options, and decided we needed to put him out of his misery. Unlike many bougie (bourgeois) farmers around here, Ron is a skilled hunter. Those skills come in handy at times like this. We didn’t have to call some sort of “wildlife service” (aka trap or kill service for hire). Ron was able to put the poor skunk out of his misery as quickly and humanely as possible, and take his body to our new land next door (another post!?) to decompose or get eaten. None of this is nice or pleasant or fun, but it is part of the pragmatic, sometimes harsh, reality of farm life. We prefer to try to manage our land and its inhabitants as honorably as possible. That includes allowing the skunk to go through cycles of life (and death) here, not in the landfill.

Back to life. I haven’t written many posts for the past year and especially since the new calendar year for personal reasons (some of you know what these are, although I will not discuss them here and please do not post comments about them). As challenges appeared, resolved, reappeared, developed, worsened, and evolved over the past year, the farm has, of course, been here.

Rains came and went. Crops succeeded and failed. Snow piled up. Then it melted. Sheep grazed, pooped, and wanted pets. Chickens ran around and laid eggs. Cinnamon gave birth to two healthy lambs (another post!). Flowers bloomed and went to seed. Weeds bloomed and went to seed. The sun powered our solar panels. Compost composted. We harvested, canned, pickled, and froze. We weeded. Then the weeds came back. Chicks hatched. Later we ate adolescent roosters.

And so it goes.

I haven’t been able to do nearly as much this year–on the farm or anywhere else–due to the personal circumstances. But the farm has continued with its farmy ways amid all the Other Stuff. The seasons have continued, life and death–and rebirth–have continued.

I find comfort in this stability.

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recipe

It’s the first of the year (!?!?!). I’m not going to write about farm “goals” today.

Instead, I’ll share a new recipe that I tried last night: Middle-Eastern lamb saute with cabbage and Swiss chard.

This recipe ticks three farm and food boxes, not that we keep track of farm and food “boxes” most of the time. However, the recipe does use lamb (our favorite meat–and, alas, livestock animal), Swiss chard, and cabbage.

We always end up with too much Swiss chard. I like it, but I can’t quite shake this dreaded Swiss chard feeling whenever we harvest, freeze, or defrost some. I have several Swiss chard recipes in our regular rotation–tofu with Swiss chard and peanut sauce, pasta with Swiss chard in a goat cheese sauce, and sausage and white bean soup with (you guessed it) Swiss chard. They are all good. Why, then, do I get that dreaded Swiss chard feeling nonetheless?

We started growing cabbage only a few years ago, but have generally had productive harvests. We wasted a number of heads this year because we didn’t get them out of the ground before the first deep freeze. I used the last cabbage we picked last night. I had to cut out about half of the cabbage, but the other half was still good, although not primo cabbage because it had been in the fridge for about two months.

And then there is lamb. Sigh. Two truths can be held simultaneously: lamb and mutton are delicious, and sheep are wonderful creatures. I still can’t sort out how I feel about all this, but one thing that always comes to mind is Homer Simpson’s line from the “Lisa the Vegetarian” episode after the family goes to the zoo and Lisa realizes lamb chops come from the cute animals she’s seen at the petting zoo earlier that day: “But Lisa, this is lamb, not lamb.”

Yeah, right.

Without further ado, here is Middle-Eastern lamb saute with cabbage and Swiss chard.

Note to cooks: preparing and cooking the dreaded Swiss chard will vary depending on whether you have big stalks, frozen chard, or fresh chard with small stems. If you have big stems, cut out the stalks, slice thinly, and cook with the cabbage; roughly chop leaves and add them in later with the carrots. If you have frozen chard (like we do), roughly chop mostly frozen, partly defrosted chard blob; cook with the cabbage. If you have fresh chard with small stems, just roughly chop and toss it all in with the carrots at the end.

  • 1 lb ground lamb
  • 1/2 medium bunch Swiss chard (don’t ask me what medium means)
  • 1/2 small green cabbage, thinly sliced, about 3 cups
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (no, not that Cinnamon)
  • fresh squeezed orange juice from one orange (recipe called for 3 tablespoons, but I’d add more oj)
  • 2 medium carrots, grated
  • 6 dates, roughly chopped
  • some fresh mint (I didn’t have)
  • plain yogurt (I didn’t use)

Brown lamb for about 7 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare cabbage and Swiss chard. Add cabbage (and chard stems or frozen chard, if you went for options 1 or 2) and saute about 3 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, orange zest, salt, and cinnamon. Cook for about 1 minute. Deglaze with orange juice, scraping up browned meat bits from pan. Stir in chard leaves, carrots, dates, and mint. Cook about 3 minutes. Season to taste. Serve with more mint and yogurt. Serve over couscous or rice.

Bon farm-appetit!

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