Sunday, July 5, 2015

Happy Fourth-ish!

I know this is a day late but I want so share with you one of my favorite quotes. This one by Jack Kerouac, from On The Road, always comes to mind on the Fourth of July.

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, "Awww!"

This time of year always brings out that kind of madness in all of us here in Ohio, I think. The weather is finally warm, school is out, it's time for many of us to go on vacation or just sit out on our own decks, enjoying nature. In short, I want to enjoy every new experience that comes my way; every old familiar experience, too, for that matter. Sometimes that enjoyment comes in the form of travel and sometimes it means just sitting  on my own deck with a good book.

The alpacas are reveling in this moderate sunny weather. I look out the back door and often see them lazing in the pasture, sprawled out on their sides rolling in the dust and basking in the sun.

Another reason that I love this time of year is...Jam Time! 

I had already made one batch of strawberry jam by myself before my assistant and granddaughter, Olivia, came up to help with the second one. This year we added a new trainee to the jam kitchen. My niece's daughter, Riley, (that makes me a great-aunt, but I prefer to think of myself as a Great Aunt) worked in the kitchen making her first ever strawberry jam.

Olivia, who is driving now and has her own car, brought Riley up. Riley was staying the week; Olivia stayed the day. I consider myself a very fortunate g-ma since my almost seventeen-year-old granddaughter still wants to visit and make jam with me. The two girls picked strawberries and we cleaned them and made another batch of jam. You can never have too much strawberry jam.

After the jam, and before supper time, just to stave off boredom, Olivia and Riley made fresh strawberry muffins. After a supper of homemade macaroni and cheese with smoked sausage, Olivia set off for home and Riley, Rich and I settled in for the evening with our books and newspapers.

Riley, a city girl, spent the week with us here on the Buckeye Star Alpaca farm. When I wasn't teaching her to knit or making her help with gardening chores like dead heading the iris plants, she spent a lot of time outside playing ball with Callie. The poor dog was completely worn out each evening and has never slept better in her life.

I think the activity that Riley enjoyed most of all was walking the alpacas. Rich and I  harnessed them up two at a time and walked them around the yard. We took this opportunity to snap current pictures of the animals and after the picture taking, Riley got to walk an alpaca for the very first time. She was thrilled. At the end of the week when I asked her what she might want to be when she grows up, without hesitation she replied, "An alpaca farmer!"

Thursday, June 4, 2015

New Yarns and Spring Time!

Since my last post on May 1, the rest of the month just flew by and blogging got lost in the craziness. Brutus and Asterius left us to go live in a new home and from what I've seen on Face Book, they are adjusting very well to their new pasture. We still miss them because they were always so entertaining as only young alpacas can be. But now they are neck wrestling and chest butting and entertaining their new family. I feel confident that we sold them to the right person.

Earlier this month I was so privileged to be able to visit my daughter and grandkids in Columbus, (their dad was out of town) on the weekend that Olivia went to her first prom. Watching her get her hair and make-up done as she prepped for her date was so reminiscent of the days when her mom, Amy, and her Aunt Susie went to dances. As a proud grandma and admittedly biased, I've got to say that Olivia was absolutely beautiful. You be the judge...

After that event it seemed that we were spending so much time working on getting the lawn and garden in shape in between cold and/or windy days. It looks pretty good right now. Then later in the month we attended my grandson, Max's, confirmation party. Again, biased, but he is as handsome as his sister is beautiful. When did that cranky little boy turn into such a genial, sociable teenager? He's the one in the middle between us and his Colorado grandparents.

This past weekend I received my 2015 yarns from Morning Star Fiber Mill where I have had the fleeces processed the past two years. They are absolutely beautiful! This year I had everything processed into either worsted weight or rug yarns. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon working out in my shop/weaving studio pricing the yarn and re-working the yarn display.

I had the mill combine the fleece from the white animals: Took, Mango and Nikko, and then divide it and combine with some pre-dyed merino for some lovely colors. Half was combined with rose quartz and garnet merino to make our Heathered Mulberry worsted yarn. The other half was combined with turquoise and emerald merino to make our Heathered Sea Spray. Both are lovely.

 Brutus and Leezza, our dark brown animals, were combined and a touch of the turquoise merino was added to make what I have called Baltic Brown/Blue. It is perhaps my favorite and I knitted up a swatch the day I received the yarn. It is a lovely deep brown with unexpected flecks of turquoise. It reminded me of the moody hues of an angry, winter ocean.

The fourth worsted yarn is a super soft 100% baby alpaca Heathered Gray. I had baby Mocha's fleece combined with Asterius (he was sheared before he left our farm) for an exceptionally soft  yarn that will be suitable for baby clothing or anything worn next to the skin. It's a lovely dark heather gray color and I want to knit something with this one. Who am I kidding? I want to knit something with every one of my yarns. Rich is constantly reminding me that the purpose of having these yarns made is to SELL them and not to try to see if I can knit them all myself. They are all for sale in our actual store out here on the farm and in our Etsy store.

Our rug yarn this year is a combination of all of our animals and is variegated black-to-brown-to-white, and should work up into lovely woven throw rugs. There are only four 150 yard bumps so they should sell out fast like last year's rug yarn.

Spring finally seems to be here to stay and the animals are all enjoying the sunshine and new grass in the pasture. I often look out there to see them stretched out on their sides basking in the sun. I remember the first time I saw Took do that and how still she was. I was afraid that she had died! I went rushing out to check her and she slowly lifted just her head and looked at me over her shoulder. She seemed almost resentful that I had disturbed her sleep!

Little Mocha is growing like a weed and has finally learned to take the apple flavored treats from Rich's hand. They are shaped like an apple slice, are solid like a dog biscuit and a bit large for his little mouth. We break them in half so they fit in his mouth. Now that he has acquired a taste for them he often pushes to the head of the line to get his treat first!

Today the doors and windows are open and I can hear the birds singing outside. Now that I have finished with all of the busy work of managing the herd and the Etsy store I think that I will go out to the store this afternoon and weave some rugs or maybe just sit on the porch and read a good book. Don't 'cha just love springtime?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Bitter and Sweet

Asterius and Brutus, our two star attractions when visitors come to the farm, will be leaving us tomorrow. Although I knew someday this would happen, I get tears in my eyes when I think about it. They were our first born-on-the-farm crias and have been a big hit with everyone. These two little guys rush to the fence every time a vehicle turns into the driveway and always have a "nose kiss" ready for anyone willing to lean over and receive it from them

Asterius was born on August 8, 2013 to Our Peruvian Took, otherwise known as Tookie, one of the first alpacas that we purchased to begin our herd. His arrival came as a surprise to Rich and I because we didn't really expect him for a couple of more weeks. After a Sunday excursion with two of Rich's brothers and their wives, we returned home to see our three females surrounding a tiny mound of wet, white cria in their pasture!

Asterius was such a scrawny, leggy little thing that it is difficult to match that up with the sturdy, ultra-fluffy guy he is now. The first week after his birth we had to bottle feed him because his mama, Took, had a minor clog in her plumbing. Rich would hold Asterius on his lap while I fed him the bottle and his mama stood nearby making that particular clicking noise in her throat that helps the cria identify  their parent.

He was so tiny that even I could pick him up in my arms.

Brutus was born barely a month later on September 5, 2013, to another of our foundation herd members, Firenze. Firenze, a beautiful black and very regal animal, was a slightly older animal with a history of being a good mama. The day Brutus was born I had returned from teaching a class at a nearby university as usual. Knowing that Firenze was due any time, I checked out the pasture behind the house where we had our mamas before going inside to change and grab some lunch. Firenze wasn't showing any signs of labor and seemed to be grazing calmly in the pasture. When I came back out on the deck about 45 minutes later she was still calmly grazing only there was what looked like a little brown pile of rags beside her!

Since this cria was born in Ohio at the beginning of football season, Rich felt that it was only logical to name him Brutus. Firenze, true to her reputation, was a good mama who was always nearby as her baby learned to navigate the pasture and stand up to the one month older and bigger, Asterius.

We noticed that Brutus began grazing in the grass and eating hay at the age of two months, while Asterius was still relying solely on his mother for his nutrition. We didn't think that this was strange because Brutus still nursed regularly, too. Firenze was still very thin but her health records showed that she always had trouble putting on weight after giving birth. Then one very cold January night when Brutus was only four months old, I found Firenze "down" in the barn. Even though the vet came out and administered a couple of shots out of desperation (ours) our beautiful, queen of the herd, Firenze died during the night. A necropsy showed that she had been sick for a very long time and the vet said that he was surprised that she even got pregnant, let alone carried a healthy baby full term. His nursing was probably just a comfort thing because Firenze's milk had clearly dried up. Firenze managed to stay alive until she was confident that Brutus could survive without her. Although small for his age, Brutus has no health problems and has thrived through it all.

So these two pasture mates who are, unfortunately related to all of our herd females and cannot be bred to them, had to be sold. I knew it was a part of being an alpaca owner and breeder and that selling them is the responsible thing to do. I've watched these two pasture buddies chase each other around the pasture, chest butting and neck wrestling. I've seen each spitting warnings at the other when they get irritated and want to be left alone. For the past 19 months they have entertained each other and entertained Rich and I and our visitors. They live just steps from my back door and I can see them when I look out of any of my back windows. When I return home and pull into my driveway they come to the fence to greet me. To say that I'm going to miss them is a massive understatement.

I've spoken to the new owner, Jennifer, who is an animal lover and excited to be adding them to her menagerie. She already has a few alpacas, a cow and other animals. I get a sense that she will love Asterius and Brutus as much as we do. She has promised to post pictures of them on her Facebook page so that I can be reassured that they are doing well. Even so, when we hand them over tomorrow morning I can't promise that I won't cry.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Shearing Time Again

Rich and I looked forward to shearing day this year. Like last year we carted our animals in two separate loads, girls and Mocha first and boys second, down to Grass Run Alpacas where the shearing station was set up. Rhonda and Myron, owners of Grass Run, create a festive atmosphere for a long day of work. Their 4-H club members, who have animals at the farm, assist in the process where ever they are needed and Rhonda hosts a pot luck at the house for the workers and animal owners. This year, it also happened to fall on Rhonda's birthday which made it even more of a celebration.

Mary Jane Fox was doing the shearing this year and she is such a perfectionist that each animal came out looking as if they had spent a day at the spa. I prefer the rounded top-knot on their heads instead of the completely bald or Mohawk strip between their ears. Mary Jane not only sheared perfect little Afros, she also hand clipped with scissors in order to make sure that there were no stray locks sticking out!

Brutus getting his new hair-do!
The alpacas always look so naked after losing their winter fleece. It's difficult to tell Took from Mango, and Brutus from Asterius when they have lost their fleece. You wouldn't think that hair would give each one such a distinctive look but it does. After the process we are able to make a truer assessment of each alpaca's body score: for example, all winter long we suspected that Took was a little on the heavy side and that Mango was a bit thin. Now they they are virtually hairless, Mango looks lean but not too much so, and Took still looks chubby. Someone has been keeping the others away from the feeder until she gets more than her share!

Before shearing, each animal was given something to help them relax, making the whole process less stressful for them and for us. Mango, who was such a screecher and spitter last year, was so much more calm this year.  Little Mocha got his haircut first and Mango followed. She walked calmly to the shearing table and once her legs were tethered, she lay there quietly during her treatment.

Mango waiting her turn on the table. That's Mocha's sire in the background.

Rhonda takes over head holding duties while I snap pictures.

Rich helps the shearer lift each animal on to the table and maneuvers them as needed to reach each section to be sheared, while I hold the head and neck. Rhonda or someone else in the area takes over head holding duties while I take pictures or noodle the blanket fleece. Everyone in and around the barn pitches in and helps with all of the animals and the whole process went smoothly. 

The large plastic buckets, lined with trash bags, under the shearing table are color coded to hold different  sections of fleece as they come off of the animals. The blanket fleece is the part across their back from shoulder to tail. It's the best part of the fleece for yarn making because it is longer, finer and cleaner than any other part. That's the part that I "noodle" instead of collecting in a bucket. This entails shoving a plastic drop cloth under the side of the animal from shoulder to backside. As the shearer shaves it off, I gently lower the fleece as a single blanket onto the tarp. I then fold the plastic over the blanket and roll it up from the end like a sleeping bag. This makes it so easy for me to spread out on the floor when I get home and to further pick out any impurities that might be in it, thus reducing the amount of cleaning that the fleece has to go through at the mill. The shorter and dirtier cuts of fleece are used for making rug yarn or felting. That really dirty, matted stuff on their lower legs is discarded or sometimes used for compost.

One of the pictorial highlights of this visit to Grass Run Alpacas was that little Mocha man got to meet his papa, Black Night. Before shearing, Mocha appeared to be more brown than black in his body. Mary Jane told us that the brown tips were caused by the placental fluid and that his actual color at the roots was bay black. Once he lost that baby fleece and was walked to the fence near his papa, it was apparent that he is truly a bay black animal and looks very much like Black Night.

Mocha meeting his papa for the first time.

Asterius was the most chilled out of all of the herd when he was on the table. His head lolled back and he looked up to us out of eyes that looked like Kermit the Frog! I haven't weighed it yet, but it looked like he also won the prize for the most blanket fleece. His fleece was 6-8 inches long across his back. All I have left to do before I take the bags of fleece to the mill next week is to weigh each fleece and pull test samples from each blanket to do a rough estimation of the density, crimp and micron count (fine-ness) and record it in my files. I'll compare to last year's samples later when I have time to take a breath. Right now I am looking forward to the lovely new yarns and rovings that will be made for me at Morning Star Fiber Mill in Apple Creek.

Just chillin' out.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Daffodils and The Queen

For a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that the Queen and I share a birthday, April is my favorite month. I love the milder temperatures and the smell of spring flowers and newly mowed lawns in the air. I can even deal with days like today which started out at 60 degrees and dropped suddenly with the high winds that blew rain in from the west. Out here in the country the farmers are already beginning to work the land in the drier pastures and my gardener friends have planted their cold weather crops like spinach, peas, onions and such. When I look out my front windows I can see the cheerful bobbing of the yellow daffodils that have finally blossomed. These sturdy flowers were already poking up through the last of the snow in March and don't seem to wither with the fluctuating temperatures of April.

This past weekend on Saturday I taught another basket making class over at The Art Junction in New Haven. We made a bread basket which is an intermediate skill level and of my four students only one had made a basket before. The students ranged in age from a fourth grader to a woman "of a certain age" like me and included one of my former 7th graders who is now a freshman. It was a diverse age group and we got along famously. I really enjoyed this class. 

Each one of their projects, made from the same pattern, resulted in a basket that was totally unique to each individual. Every time I teach a basket making class I am amazed at the resulting projects. Every basket maker puts her (or his) own special spin on the project making it a work of art. All four of my class members left with a bread basket that they were proud of and eager to take home and show their family members.

Shearing day is this Friday and the temperature is supposed to drop low enough later this week that we have overnight frost warnings from Wednesday through Sunday. The daytime highs will be warm enough for them but we may have to put a coat on little Mocha man. Though he doesn't look it with his full fleece, underneath it all he is still pretty small. I will post before and after pictures of all of the alpacas on Saturday. We are also opened on Saturday mornings for drop-in visitors if anyone wants to come out and see the "naked" animals. 

Each year when we bring them back from the shearing station and turn the alpacas loose into their pastures, they all go romping and pronking out into the grass and I'm sure it's because they feel so much lighter after all of that fleece is removed. Lately, our yearlings, Brutus and Asterius, have been feeling their oats and have been engaging in bouts of "neck wrestling" in their pasture. Once they are relieved of their heavy fleece, the two of them should be really feisty. I'm always amused by their antics. They run and pronk, chest butting each other as they pass by and circle around the pasture for another Pepe-le-Pew like pronk. If you want to see exactly what this behavior looks like just go to You.Tube and search for pronking alpacas. It always makes me laugh.

We took each of the animals for a walk one day last week when it was sunny. I always get a kick out of the double takes of people driving by when they see a fuzzy, Peruvian animal walking on a leash. Brutus, in particular, loves to walk on the lead. He's a cutie and perhaps my favorite of all the alpacas, mainly because, although he's mild mannered and very biddable, he is such a survivor, having lost his mama when he was only four months old. 

We walked Mocha for the first time, too. Rich took his mama, Mango, and walked her on the lead. She's an old hand at this and followed Rich right out of the gate without balking. Mocha, however, hung back and was very reluctant to leave the safety of the barnyard, understandable since it was his first time. Once he realized that Mango was leaving him he gave in and followed me out of the gate. Mocha kept "maa-ing," crying for his mama the whole time we were walking. Although he was clearly befuddled he kept following Rich and Mango all around the yard and back to the pasture. 

I don't expect that we will have any trouble getting him into the trailer this Friday when we take them for shearing. We take them in two loads, first Nikko, Asterius and Brutus and when they have been sheared we come back and take the girls and Mocha. Last year it went pretty smoothly and I'm looking forward to it again. Rich and I pitch in and help with our own animals and any others who need help. It's a long and arduous task but fun and very rewarding.

Just a reminder, we are gearing up for our spring open house on May 16th and 17th from 10-4 each day. See you then!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

April Showers And All That Jazz!

When I woke up to flashing bolts of lightening, crashing thunder and my big, brave, Labrador Retriever, Callie, cowering on my side of the bed, I realized that I was in for a long dreary day. To top it all off I had my yearly mammogram and DEXA bone scan to go to this morning. TMI, I know, but I just wanted to paint a realistic picture of what my day was going to be like.

After tumbling out of bed and soothing the dog, I blindly stumbled downstairs to the kitchen (sounds kind of like a Dolly Parton song, doesn't it?) where, thank God, Rich had started the coffee. He knows not to ask me anything that demands serious answers until I have had that first cup so he always has it waiting for me when he gets up first.

Spring forward a couple of hours...I only spent 30 minutes in the women's clinic. It was a very slow day for them meaning that I was in and out in record time. From there on in,  the day got way better. As I was driving home from the hospital where I had the tests I was thinking to myself that this would be a perfect day to bake bread. And that's exactly what I did. There's something comforting about bread rising on the counter top and then the yummy smell of bread baking that makes an otherwise cloudy, depressing day seem all warm and cozy.

I used a recipe that my daughter, Amy, had given me to make one of my mother's old favorites, English Muffin Bread. It makes two loaves and takes a bit longer to rise and bake than some breads, but the end result is delicious. It is even better sliced and toasted than it is warm from the oven; and it's pretty good warm from the oven.

Of course, I had to slice into one of the loaves as soon as it cooled. I wouldn't want to serve Rich a "bad" loaf of bread, would I? Mmmmm! That loaf won't last much past tomorrow morning. I wrapped the second loaf and put it in the freezer for a later time when I feel the need for homemade bread and don't have the time to bake it.

In spite of the alternating rain and mist, it wasn't too terribly cold this afternoon so I donned my little, red, raincoat and ventured outside to see if any of the herd might be out. They don't like soaking rains because their fleece, which doesn't have any of the oils that sheep fleece has, tends to absorb the water and weight them down. Nikko and Asterius, in particular, have such dense, crimpy, fleece that it repels light rain and they will often go out as long as it's only misty. Nikko came running when he heard the back storm door slam. That slam is sort of like the ding of the bell was for Pavlov's dogs. Nikko and the others hear it and have become conditioned to think that they are going to get a treat. Once he realized that I was only out there to take his picture he turned his back on me and headed inside out of the rain.

My efforts weren't completely wasted though. I strolled around the yard and found that my daffodils have shot up and actually have a few yellow buds on them. Given this rain and a couple of sunny days they should be blooming soon.

 I also noticed that the phlox in the flowerbed at the foot of the front steps is showing green as are the lilies in the "bunny" garden beside the front porch. It gives substance  to the old adage, "April showers bring May flowers."

By the time we have our Spring Open House on May 16th and 17th everything should be green and flowering. Check back for more details of the open house.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"April is the cruellest month..."

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.   - T.S. Eliot

Although Eliot goes on to tell a different story after the first four lines of his poem, "The Waste Land," these four opening lines always make me feel like it's a description of Ohio in April. Today the temperatures reached a comfortable and sunny 68 degrees and tomorrow is supposed to be the same. However, (in Ohio in April there is always a "however") by this Easter weekend the temperatures will struggle to reach the low 40s.

Ah, well! All we can do is enjoy the warm day while it's here. I spent the morning painting  the rest of the kitchen wainscoting that I hadn't finished the other day. I must admit it looks so much cleaner in there.

Now, though, the front door looks pretty shabby and will need painting when it gets warm enough to keep it open all day. I may as well get enough paint to do the back door, too, since once the front door is done it will make the back door look pretty tired. That's the trouble with interior painting projects. Once you complete one room, it makes the ones near to it look badly in need of refreshing. It's the old "domino theory' at work.

I'm taking a break for the rest of the week to get some craft projects done. I have a sewing project about finished and it has been laying around for over a week now. One good hour's work and my new blouse should be ready for Easter Sunday. I have one sock done of a pair that I am making for a friend of my granddaughter, Olivia. The second sock is started (2") and I need to get to work on that. I also have some yarn half plied on the wheel that I have been staring at since October. 'Bout time I get that done, too. Once those projects are completed I'll get back to the painting.

The forsythia by the back deck hasn't bloomed yet and according to the folklore that my maternal grandpa swore by, there will be three snows after it does. I cut some twigs from the shrub and brought them inside yesterday, hoping to force them to bloom and hasten things along. Right now they just look like sticks in a jar! No sign of a blossom on any of the sticks, so I guess that means that we still have more snow to look forward to.

Rich brought an Easter Lily plant home yesterday and that's helping to brighten the living room a little bit.

I took a break this afternoon to go out to the pasture and snap a few pictures of the herd enjoying the sunny day. Asterius is getting so big that he is looking more and more like Nikko every day. At his current rate of growth he should be the same size as Nikko by the end of the summer. (That's Nikko laying down in the foreground and Asterius in back.)

The girls and little Mocha were hanging out in the back of their pasture looking for anything that might resemble a blade of grass. The pastures are pretty awful looking at this time of year. I have read somewhere that farmers often call this "the mud season" and I can certainly see why. Rich is going to clean the pastures up tomorrow and put up a temporary fence to block the girls out of the pasture until the grass recovers.

Our little Mocha-man likes to hang with Leezza. Brutus did the same when he was a little tyke. She's petty patient with him for a girl that's almost seven months pregnant. Rich went out one evening a couple of weeks ago, just at sundown and found Leezza leading Mocha and the girls on a pronking dance through the pasture and back into the barn; an activity that usually involves only the young crias. I often see Mocha sleeping alongside of Leezza instead of his mother, Mango; and I haven't seen him nursing lately either. Maybe he has self-weaned? Guess we just have to wait and see. I hope that this behavior means that Leezza is going to be a good mama when her first little cria arrives.

Mocha and his aunt Leezza with mama Mango looking on.