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.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What The What...?

It is officially the second full day of spring so imagine my surprise when I looked up from reading my cozy mystery book and saw nothing but white outside my front window. Flipping down the footrest of the Lazy Boy, I rushed to open the front door to check it out. This is what I saw...

light flurries. Just enough to dust the driveway and flower-bed-to-be. Curious to see how the animals were taking it, since they had all been lolling around the pasture earlier enjoying the mild weather, I put on some shoes and a jacket (with a hood) and went out the back door. In just the short amount of time that it took me to prep myself the snow had picked up and this is what I found in the boys' pasture:

The girls and little Mocha must have headed for the barn as soon as the snow began to fall because they were nowhere in sight. However, Asterius and Brutus were behaving like the true mountain animals that they instinctively are and had remained in their pasture still looking for that bit of grass that might have been poking through the snow. Obviously the snow had picked up because both of them were covered with a heavy frosting of the white stuff. Although it looks as if they were posing for me I know they really were hoping that I had come bearing treats for them.

Nikko, the self appointed guardian of the herd, was laying down at the far end of his run nearest to the girls' barn. He is always eager for treats and to pose for pictures, so he came running when he realized that I was at the fence. His fleece was also thickly covered with a coating of the new snow.

He put his head over the fence for a quick "nose kiss" and went back to his spot at the other end of the run when he realized that he wasn't going to get a treat from me.

Although it's still snowing and has been for the past half hour, I'm confident that it will go away soon. The weather report for tomorrow says it's going to be 63 degrees and rainy. Not surprising. That's spring in Ohio!

I have been busy for the past week or so washing the downstairs curtains and repainting the downstairs trim. I finally finished it on Saturday morning. That afternoon Rich helped me clean the carpet in the living room. I began the project thinking that those tasks were all that I would have to do of spring cleaning but like so often happens, now I notice how bad the walls look and so have plans to paint the downstairs bathroom and kitchen. That task has to be put off for a week or two because our social schedule has been picking up, too.

Saturday evening we met some good friends at a German restaurant not far from here for dinner. We hadn't seen them since last fall so it was fun to have a couple of  "biers" and catch up with them. Then on Sunday we hosted several members of  Rich's large extended family to celebrate his mother's birthday. I hit the mother-in-law jackpot when I married into this family. Delores is one of the sweetest women I know and I consider her next to sainthood for successfully raising five sons. She welcomed me to the family with open arms and has always made me feel like a daughter.

I have been cooking and baking most of the day today, preparing to host my girlfriends at our monthly luncheon. We rotate each month to a different member's home and this month it's my turn. I have been planning an Irish dinner in honor of St. Patrick's Day. I baked Irish soda bread today and this evening Rich is going to help me prepare mashed potatoes which I will reheat in the oven tomorrow and serve with Irish sausages. I prefer "bangers and mash" to the traditional corned beef and cabbage meal. This is a monthly gathering that I always look forward to. Cead mile failte!

Friday, March 6, 2015

An "International Woman" For An Afternoon

I had the most delightful experience this afternoon when I joined my friend, Athena, and her women's group for lunch. Athena, was born in Greece and married an American soldier, Jim, who brought her at a very young age, back to the USA. We met them in a very round-about way several years ago through Jim's brother, Steve, who is friends with Rich and they have become friends as well. About a week ago, Athena contacted me and asked if I would like to accompany her to her International Women's group luncheon at the home of one of the members. I didn't hesitate even a minute for the simple reason that all of Athena's Face Book posts with her girlfriends look as if they are having such a riotous fun time. I wasn't disappointed.

We were instructed to bring a dish that reflected our heritage so let me tell you, that buffet was filled to overflowing with some of the most delicious dishes I have ever had the pleasure of eating. The smells in that kitchen when we entered were so overwhelming that I could hardly wait to dig in. Athena had made her spanakopita that she has served up on other occasions when Rich and I dined at her house. It is one of my favorite dishes so I ate a small piece with my lunch. She also sneaked a small plate full for me to take home to Rich. There were hummus type dips, salads with mint and spices, bulgar and tomato casseroles, keftedes,  eggplant casserole and so many desserts.

Rola, our hostess, (that's her beside me on the left in the picture below) was so gracious and made us all feel like very welcome and honored guests in her lovely home. I met so many diverse and interesting women of a variety of ages and occupations. I had a long conversation with Claudia, a knitter like myself. We are now friends on where I have already checked out some of her past projects. She is a talented knitter and crocheter who has created some beautiful pieces of work.

I always enjoy time spent with Athena. I learn so much from her about Greece and the Greek people which helps ground me in my own Greek heritage. Athena is funny and fun to be around. She's also a great cook and a good friend.

After record low temperatures for February and early March it looks like it's finally going to begin warming up this weekend. By mid-week we may see temperatures reach 50 degrees! Even so, it is going to be quite a while before all of the snowdrifts and piles of snow shoveled around the driveway and pasture melt away. Meanwhile, the alpacas are picking their  way around the drifts and trying to spend more time in the pasture. The other day I caught Asterius playing "king of the hill" on the drift that abuts Nikko's pasture, while Brutus and Mocha looked on.

Asterius is the more dominant of the two boys in the yearling pasture. Brutus is more laid back. But if Asterius decided to go over the fence into Nikko's area, he may get more than he bargained for. Now that Nikko has been successfully bred to our three females he has taken on the role of herd protector and dominant male. That's why he is in a pasture of his own. He bullied the two little guys when they were all together. So far Asterius is content just to climb his little mountain and look over the fence. Soon it will all melt away and any risk of mayhem will pass.

On these sunny days all of the animals seem to know that there is grass somewhere beneath the coating of snow and they can be seen nosing around looking for it. Often they come up with frosted noses and perplexed looks as if they are demanding, "Where is our grass?"

Soon, kids, be patient like the rest of us!