Welcome, Spring!

Spring’s sprung, though she’s easing in this year instead of pretending she’s summer like last year.  In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that the photos accompanying this post were taken before last week’s foot or so of snow fell…then again, much of that new snow has melted away already.  According to the folks at Sumner’s A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm, where we spent some time on Maine Maple Sunday, the conditions have been excellent for maple sugaring…that all important swing between the upper 30s and 40s by day and down into the 20s at night.  Thank God!

This time of year, the focus is all on the greenhouse, and Sonya was in there the first week of March sowing the first seeds of the season:  onions, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs, with lettuce and Napa cabbage soon after.  Lydia helped out and has her own tray going this year.  Now, we’re scaling back, of course…in previous years, there would be dozens of trays set out by this point in March.  This year, I think we have six or seven!

Our modest group of starts...everything else in the background is the work of Becky for Swallowtail Gardens.

You’d never know it to peek in there, though.  The front of the greenhouse is just about full, thanks to the efforts of our next door neighbor, Becky Moening.  We’ve rented most of our greenhouse space to her this spring so that she can really get a jump on things for her perennial flower and plant business, Swallowtail Gardens.  She’s been working out there a couple days a week and stopping by just about every day (often accompanied by her collie, Indi…referred to by Lydia as “Indi, the Wonder Dog”) to water her plants and keep the woodstove going.  We’re thrilled to have her around and glad that the space is being put to good use.  As her plants mature and she gets her stand up and running next door, please stop by, check out her plants, and give her your business!

Swallowtail Gardens' pots

Spring is coming, and Becky is ready!

There’s also action in the back of the greenhouse as our fall spinach planting has come back to life with a vengence.  This spinach is, I swear, the best I have ever tasted…sweet and almost crisp.  You can see what all the fuss is about by buying some at Square Root Natural Foods here in Poland.  We also have carrots growing out back, sown in the fall and still quite small.

Wee carrots!

In other news, I hope to launch a few spring-y projects next week, including repairs to both chicken coops, cutting more wood for next winter, and pruning our remaining apple and pear trees.  We’re also keeping our eyes and ears on the sheep as lambs might be born at any time.  Fiona and Sienna are looking pretty large and in charge these days, and we’re watching carefully for signs of labor.  We still have no idea whether Lake and/or Coco are pregnant.  They’re so much smaller than the other two that we doubt it, but you just never know.

Happy spring, everyone!  We hope to get a date down for an April potluck soon, and we’ll post an announcement here as soon as we do!

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Weekend events…

Yo!  A couple of things coming up this weekend, folks:  On Saturday 3/2, John will be performing at the Norway Winter Farmers’ Market…10am-2pm at the First Universalist Church in downtown Norway.  On Sunday 3/3, we’re hosting our first potluck of 2013.  Stop by the farm between 11am-2pm and bring along something brunchy to share!

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Are we quitting?

Since our announcement way back last summer that the 2012 CSA would be our last, a few folks have accused us of “quitting farming”, though accused is perhaps too strong of a term.  The phrase was lobbed at us at least once in a somewhat angry manner (“You’re quitting!  I can’t believe it!!”), but it’s also come in the form of a question (“So….you’re quitting?  That’s it?”) or as a simple statement of fact, almost an aside (“Now that you’ve quit farming…”)  With both kids in daycare/preschool yesterday and much of our days’ work done by lunchtime (schoolwork for Sonya, farmy/householdy stuff for me), Son and I decided to get out into the sun and mild air for a snowshoe around the fields and woods, and the “quitting” question came up.  Sonya wanted to know if it bugged me when people said it.  I said that it did, and we both figured it would be a good topic to flesh out right here on the blog.

So, it’s true that we are cutting way back, and this is a process that started a couple years ago.  2011 was our high water mark…2 apprentices, 3 markets per week, and 90 CSA shares sold.  The biggest decision we made after that season was to try a summer without apprentice help.  Our markets were popular and fun but ultimately not really worth the time and effort required of them, so those were dropped.  We also decided to scale the CSA back to between 50 and 60 shares (I think we wound up with about 55 for 2012).  I think we sensed at that point, with a young Lydi and a very new Ezra, that our focus was necessarily shifting.  2012 was a great season for us mentally.  We never enjoyed managing apprentices but loved our jolly and very capable crew of volunteers, CSA workshare members, and assorted WWOOFers.  We worked as hard as ever, but the stress levels were much lower.  Sonya’s decision early in the season to return to school prompted us to once again look carefully at what we’d been doing.  There was some consideration of continuing the CSA on a very small scale (perhaps 20 shares), but as with markets a year earlier, a quick assessment of the effort involved vs. return made it obvious that that wouldn’t work well.  I was also, frankly, daunted by the prospect of running the CSA solo.  If you haven’t figured this out by now, folks, Sonya is the brains behind the operation.  Her ability to plan, assess, and act in this farming context is way beyond mine.  I’m essentially a mule who also writes.  Go figure!

So here we are, and our plans are as follows…  We are scaling waaaaay back….going from about 4 acres of veggies to a mere 1/3 or so of an acre…from a veggie farm to a very large garden, essentially.  We plan to feed ourselves, of course, and also to continue to provide produce and herbs to our friends at Poland’s Square Root Natural Foods and Auburn’s Axis Natural Foods.  Last fall, we had so much wonderful, big, seed-quality garlic that we decided to plant a ton of it out in Field 3 with the idea of wholesaling the results this summer and selling seed garlic to other farmers and perhaps even to area seed distributers.  Garlic is fairly easy to grow, and organic seed garlic, especially, fetches a good price.  Much of the rest of our fields will be seeded back to pasture for our sheep, and those sheep represent an intriguing way forward for us.  Our flock o’ 5 will be expanding soon…Sienna and Fiona are obviously pregnant and the smaller Lake and Coco may well be, too.  Sonya’s search for the best way to deal with our wool is on-going, and as the flock grows, we plan to offer lamb cuts for sale here at the farm and perhaps at area winter farmers’ markets in the future.  We’re going to get a couple of pigs this spring, too.  These will be just for us, but if we can get a better handle on effective fencing and gain a little more know-how, we may try raising them for sale again in the future.  There’s been some talk of getting a milking cow, too.  Our lack of a real barn is an issue, but we certainly have enough pasture to make a go of it.

So…we really don’t feel that we are quitting.  Reassessing, refocusing, evolving…certainly.  I’m very curious to see how this coming season goes.  But the bottom line is that if we stay on this piece of property…and at least for as long as Son is in school, we plan to do just that…we intend to work with it in some capacity to produce food for us and for others.  It would be ridiculous not to, both in practical terms and closer to the heart, too.  The physical and mental wear-and-tear of running a CSA/market farm are too much for us at this point in our lives, but we still love to farm, love to get our hands dirty, and feel that it’s important to keep this place productive.  We’ve spent so much time working and improving the soil and getting this land in “farm shape” that it seems almost criminal to just stop altogether.

I want to also touch on the topic of farming with kids.  There’s an idyllic sense about it, a view right out of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Admittedly, I share it, this idea of babies strapped to the back while harvesting, kids helping out with age-appropriate tasks and doing their own specific farm chores, teenagers out there doing the heavy lifting, etc.  I know a few “traditional” farm families…loads of kids, Mom tends to them and homeschools, Dad is The Farmer, the kids help out, etc.  It works for them, and I admire them for it.  This charming approach, however, this traditional scene, for us, bumped into reality once we had Lydia.  Farming with a baby strapped to your back SUCKS for everyone involved.  It was not something either Son or I could do for long periods of time.  And the thing about full-time farming is that is tends to be all-encompassing…during the CSA season, we were busy all the time.  I have awkward memories of Lydia hanging out with a babysitter in the yard on harvest days and rushing by, yelling “hello!”, literally unable to stop becasue there was so much to get done, and Lydia crying because she wanted me.  This past season, on more than one occassion, I plopped her down in front of a movie so I could run outside and harvest this or deal with that.  I don’t know what the explanation is…maybe we’re just softer than our farming forefathers were, less willing to lose ourselves to the work at the expense of our children.  And that’s really how we were feeling…that we were neglecting our children because of the farm.  So…no more of that, or at least not to the extent that the CSA seemed to require.  This topic…the idea of modern folk like us returning to an agrarian lifestyle while raising kids and achieving, or failing to achieve, that balance of farm vs. family…is fascinating to me, and one I hope to pursue.  A book idea, perhaps?

In closing, I want to note that we’re also very proud of the fact that over the past five years we’ve brought people together, fostered friendships, and created a little organic  farming community here in Poland.  We very much want our friends and former CSA members to keep in touch, and with that in mind, we plan to continue our tradition of hosting potlucks here at the farm.  They may not happen as often, but they will happen!  As a matter of fact, the first potluck of 2013 is scheduled for Sunday, March 3rd from 11 AM until 2 PM.  This will be a brunchy affair, so bring along a dish to share and catch up with us and with other members of our little SSF tribe!  See you soon.

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Stormy vids

Yo!  We hope everyone weathered the weekend snowstorm OK.  I shot a couple of videos that I thought I’d share…the first was shot on Saturday morning during the storm, the second the next morning under a clear blue sky.  Quite the contrast!

 

 

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A new area CSA!

A friend of a friend is expanding her CSA over in North Turner and has asked us to help get the word out.  Bonnie Lounsbury runs River Rise Farm and will be offering 25 CSA shares for 2013.  Here’s the scoop:

River Rise Farm in North Turner is inviting people to become CSA shareholders for the 2013 season. Enjoy a basket of fresh, organically grown, local vegetables each week from mid June through early December. Pick up at the farm or in Auburn. Information and application forms will be available soon on the web site, www.riverrisefarm.com. Sign up on Facebook for information on becoming a shareholder and to follow what’s growing. https://www.facebook.com/RiverRiseFarm. Endive will be ready soon!

And here’s a link to an older blog post where I mention and describe a few other area options for CSAs:  http://summitspringsfarm.net/info/?p=2366  (Scroll down near the bottom of the post for the farm info.)  Remember to get in touch with these farms as soon as possible to either get a share or get onto their waiting lists!

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We’re Still Here!

Good Lord!  Folks, a very belated happy 2013 to you all, and my apologies for the silence of the blog these past many weeks.  I’ll go ahead and blame the haze of the holidays plus the unfortunate fact that we’ve all been under the weather a time or two since December.  In fact, we closed out the final week of 2012 and limped into 2013 with a house full of the dreaded flu…all of us got it, starting with me, then Son, then both kids.  THAT was no fun and knocked us out of commission for a couple weeks.

But, as the Beatles memorably sang:  “It’s getting better all the time (couldn’t get much worse…)”  We are all on the mend, and getting into the new year’s routine.  Sonya started her second semester at USM last week and is getting a handle on her classes and what’s expected of her this term.  Lydi is back at preschool, and Ez is back at daycare a few days a week.  And Farmer John?  I’m a sort of glorified househusband, shuffling kids to and from school, making dinner, keeping house, working on winter projects (mostly indoors at this point), splitting and schlepping firewood, and keeping an eye on the critters.

Those critters are doing well.  The sheep are holed up in their winter pen and seem happy enough, particularly when I wander ’round twice a day to dump some fresh hay over their fence.  Also, a very belated “thanks!” to our friend, Zakk Maher, for shearing those sheepies way back at the end of November.  It’s amazing how much of their wool has grown back since.

Son cleans a fleece.

The chickens, too, are wintering over just fine.  With the periodic thaws and relatively light snow pack this winter, they’ve been less “cooped up” than usual and have been able to wander…they seem to gravitate towards the truck and tractor at the back of the driveway, or to the back steps and asparagus patch near our porch.

And what of the guineas, young and old?  Winnie the guinea began the winter mingling with the chickens by day but roosting up in the trees near the driveway by night.  As colder, stormier weather began to arrive in December, we wondered and worried…how cold was too cold for a lone guinea 30 or 40 feet up in a tree?  Would a nor’easter knock her down?  Would she freeze?  Eventually, she decided on her own that soldiering on alone wasn’t the best approach…there’s safety and warmth in numbers, right?  So, she’s been pretty consistently roosting right in with the chickens in their coop.  We approve!

The young guineas are doing the same now, but it took awhile for them to get there.  You may recall that the last time I blogged about them, the six guineas were living in a large dog crate inside the sheep shed.  I gradually transitioned their food from a wild game starter to the same organic layer pellets we feed the chickens and kept moving their heat lamp higher and higher every couple of days (and left it off during the day).  At some point before Christmas, I decided the time had come to let the birds out of their cage.  First, I spent some time building a shelf and roost for them against the back wall of the sheep shed, high enough to be out of the sheeps’ way.  Once they could come and go as they pleased, they ignored my work altogether.  That first day of freedom was actually pretty amusing.  After leaving the cage door open for awhile, I went outside to check thingS out and discovered the 6 birds cowering at the back of their cage because Jeffe Blanco had climbed in and was eating their grain!  A bit later, I looked out the window to see Jeffe wandering around the sheep area with a guinea hen perched on one of his horns.  All 6 eventually came out and explored the yard, staying particularly close to Fiona, for some reason.  She didn’t seem to mind.

The tricky part came at night.  The young birds didn’t seem to know where to go or what to do.  For a stretch there, I had to let myself into the sheep area, find the birds (usually huddled together on the ground), and place them one by one either up on their new roost or back inside their cage.  Once they started venturing out of the sheep area and exploring the driveway and the nearby yard and field with the chickens and Winnie, it became even more tricky at bedtime.  For a few nights, they tended to huddle up near the stump of an old apple tree next to the driveway, and again, I would carry them into the sheep shed one by one.  One evening, I couldn’t find them at all.  Did they head for the trees?  Under the porch?  There was no sign of them.  Hoping for the best, I called it a night.  The next morning, I discovered that they had been huddled together under the farm truck, and alas, 2 of the little guineas hadn’t made it through the night (it had been a cold one).  After this sad event, I really wondered what was going to happen to the rest once the snow flew and once the serious cold of winter set in, but the hens solved their own problem the very next night.  They had been mingling with the chickens during the day, and for whatever reason, that evening they followed the hens into their coop and roosted with them.  They’ve been doing this ever since, and we’re very relieved about it!  In fact, the young quartet seem very comfortable in the chicken coop, very rarely venturing out except for grain and water when they need it.  I wonder how things will play out in the spring when the coop begins to move around the farm, but for now we’re pleased that all of our birds are together in one spot.  We can lock the coop up at night and know that everyone is warm and safe.  Amen.

Guineas young and old near the chicken coop.

That’s all, folks, but I do have one announcement:  I will once again be performing at the Norway Winter Farmers’ Market on Saturday, March 2nd from 10 AM until 2 PM.  The market is held at the First Universalist Church right on Main Street in Norway.  Stop by, hear some music, and support a diverse group of local farmers, ranchers, cooks, bakers, and artisans!

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Turkey drives?

We hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t resist sharing this wacky bit of history with you all.  This was sent along by our friend, Jim Cooke, an actor living in Quincy, MA.  For more about him, visit his Cranky Yankees website.

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VERMONT’S GREAT TURKEY DRIVES

“Before railroads, the only way to get turkeys from Vermont to market in Boston was to walk them there. And that, throughout much of the nineteenth century, is exactly what Vermonters did, including Vermonters from the northern-most parts of the state. Townspeople put their birds of a feather together, and, accompanied by wagons with camp supplies and tons of feed grain, they escorted as many as 7,000 birds at a time all the way to Boston. Drives of three to four thousand birds were common in the 1820s and ‘30s. Historian Charles Morrow Wilson says that about 1,000 birds was the minimum necessary to make the 150- to 350-mile trek worthwhile. It was a long haul. The flocks could make only ten to twelve miles a day, and at least one drover was required for each 100 birds.

“Boys scattered shelled corn feed in front of the birds, so they would walk forward, while others herded from behind. Flocks might spread out for more than a mile, ranging in width from a few feet to fifty yards. To protect the birds’ feet on such a long hike over rough terrain and November’s frozen ground, Vermonters sometimes coated the birds’ feet with warm tar. They lost about ten percent of the turkeys to forded rivers, fox, hungry farm families they met in route, and other perils of the journey.

“Two key facts to keep in mind are: big birds, little brains. Wherever they were when the sun set, that’s where they perched for the night. Their collective weight shattered trees. Occasionally, so many birds perched on a farmer’s shed or barn that the building collapsed. They sometimes mistook the shade of a covered bridge for dusk and simply stopped. And so the drovers would have to go in, pick them up, carry them through the bridge and into the sun, where they’d perk up again and head on their way.

“The advent of railroads and then, in the 1850s and ‘60s, refrigerated box cars were the beginning of the end for the great turkey drives, but some lasted into the twentieth century. The notion, in the twenty-first century, of driving thousands of turkeys, or even two birds on a leash, from Island Pond south all the way to Boston is charming in its absurdity.”

- Peter A. Gilbert / Executive Director  VERMONT HUMANITIES   (The above was broadcast two years ago on Vermont Public Radio.)

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Wacky weather, happy critters, and more…

Sunny and cool is the current pattern, but it’s not an exaggeration to note that the weather has been all over the damn place these past few weeks.  This past Monday, the kids and I were running around the yard in t-shirts, and of course two big storms have come and gone.  Sandy had little effect on us here…2 or 3 hours without power, and the wind knocked our farm sign off its pole…but the run-up to it was actually a nice kick-in-the-pants to get the farm picked up.  We sealed the greenhouses up, got all the wash station tubs, buckets, bins, and totes into the barn, and generally wandered around picking up tarps, wheelbarrows, toys, and all the other odds and ends that seem to wind up everywhere after a farm season.  The storm a week later was also pretty uneventful…some wind and an ever-changing mix of snow, sleet, and rain throughout the day.  My main concern was for the sheep.  If a lot of snow fell, they would suddenly have no food, as happened last year just before Halloween.  Luckily, this year we have our winter supply of hay on hand, and as it turns out there wasn’t enough snow to warrent moving the flock in anyway.  We continue to send postive thoughts and good vibes to the folks south of us in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere who are still struggling with a lack of power, housing, and other essentials.  What a disaster, and unfortunately I fear that the appearance of big, disruptive storms like Sandy are becoming the new normal.

Other farm projects continue, regardless of weather.  All of our garlic is in the ground and fully mulched for the winter, and now I’m trying to focus on getting greenhouse fabric off of beds in Fields 1 and 4 and stowing them away for the winter.  This involves pulling up anchor clips with pliers, scooting the fabric off the beds, folding them over, and rolling them up.  It sounds straighforward, but it’s a lot of work, especially rolling up the 100- or 300-ft lengths of heavy fabric.  Also, we continue to harvest some things (greens, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) each Friday for Square Root here in Poland and Axis over in Auburn.  If you’re itching for some SSF produce, please visit these wonderful local stores!

In animal news, everyone is fine…and on the move.  The sheep are still out on pasture for the most part but will be going into their winter pen for shearing this weekend and will stay there while we go out of town for a day or two next week.  The chicken coop has made its way onto the Field 1 beds closest to the house, and there it will stay for the winter.  Next year, most of our veggies will be over in this area, and by then, it will be well fertilized!  Though the snow will soon limit their movements, I’ve put the portable fencing away and am allowing the chickens to free range.  Their coop isn’t moving and there really aren’t any veggies nearby for them to get into.  They’ve been spending much of their time in and around the raspberries, digging and scratching about, and amusingly, Winnie the Guinea has been hanging out with them.  The hens don’t seem to mind her, and she seems to enjoy their company.  She’s still roosting in the trees, though, most recently up in a tall, skinny, half-dead pine near our mailbox.  She’s also taken to spending time up on the roof of the house!

The young guineas are also doing well in their new digs, a larger crate equiped with a heat lamp out in a corner of the sheep shed.  They made the move out there from our porch a few weeks ago.  They are growing larger and stronger each day, and I’ve been moving their lamp up a few notches every few days to get them more acclimated to the cold that’s coming.  Winnie must know they are there, but I have yet to see her inside checking out the young’uns.  A few chickens have wandered in, and one has even decided to start laying her eggs under the guinea cage (the cage is up off the floor of the shed atop a few concrete blocks).

Back to sheep for a bit…  As most of you know–and my posts this past season have made it obvious–I am perfectly comfortable owning up to the considerable limitations of my shepherding.  It’s still quite new to me, and though I’ve gotten great advice from friends in the know and guidance from a number of excellent sheep books, there’s still a ridiculous amount that I need to learn.  Help is, however, on the way, in the form of a program hatched by the Maine Sheep Breeders Association and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.  The idea is to develop a 30-month educational project for emerging sheep entrepreneurs in Maine (the tentative name for this project, or perhaps more accurately for the group, is Emerging Maine Sheep Entrepreneurs) with the goal of enabling neophyte shepherds like me to get a better handle on all aspects of sheepness:  breeding, health, marketing, etc.  I attended an exploratory meeting on all this a couple weeks ago at Northstar Farms in Windham and was impressed by the presentation.  About 40 folks from all over southern Maine listened as UMaine’s Dr. Richard Brzozowski explained the goals and make-up of the program, which is scheduled to begin in January 2013.  The plan is to educate and empower shepherds via webinars, on-line courses, in-person discussion groups, farm tours, and more.  I’ve signed on and hope the program gets a lot of support.  I was also really impressed by Northstar Farms.  We went on a quick tour after the presentation.  Phil and Lisa Webster have over a thousand (!!) sheep…mostly Suffolks and Hampshires, but around 40 Icelandics, too…and farm off Stevens Rd. in Windham (they also lease additional land).  Just seeing the scope of their enterprise…the fencing, the pastures, the out-buildings, etc…was impressive, though I have no desire to get THAT big.

Last fall, we were pleased to participate in the Norway Winter Farmers’ Market.  Alas, we don’t have the time or the veggies to do it again this year, but I have been asked by the folks who run the market to play some music there in the months ahead.  My first gig will be on Sat. Dec. 1st, so come and see me ramble through some songs and buy some yummy produce, meats, baked goods, crafts, etc. from the vendors!  The Norway Winter Farmers’ Market will be happening every Saturday from 10 AM until 2 PM at the First Universalist Church in downtown Norway until the end of the year.

Finally, I suspect I won’t get another post in before next week, so we want to wish everyone out there a very happy Thanksgiving!  Remember to try and source as much of the feast’s components as locally as you can!  This is a celebration of the harvest, after all, so give your support and dollars to the farmers and businesses in your community!

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An October video

I moved the sheep up to their newly expanded winter pen this afternoon because we’ll be out of town this weekend, and Ezra took the opportunity to peer at, touch, and giggle at these furry beasts in his backyard.

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Fall on me

As October winds down, we’re still staying busy here at the farm.  There are still crops in the field (mostly greens at this point), beds and fields to clean up, and projects to attend to.  And even more planting.  Last week, I used the last of our seed garlic to plant one more bed out in Field 3 to bring our total to five beds.  About 2/3 of those garlic beds are mulched, too, with grass clippings and fallen leaves from the yard.

Another project I can cross off my to-do list is the clean-up and expansion of the winter sheep pen.  I scraped and shoveled the now well-composted manure and hay out of the shed, lay down tarps to help extend the life of the floor, and covered it all with fresh hay and straw.  As for the yard, I decided to leave the preexisting area as is, cut out a square of fencing at the back of the old fence to add a gate, and used new fencing and metal posts to expand the yard off the back towards the woods.  The result nearly triples the sheeps’ yard area but allows us to put them into the original, smaller area if we need to (for shearing, lambing, etc.)  I just finished this up earlier this afternoon and am happy with the results!

And, bird lovers, we have exciting news:  A new batch of Guinea keets are here!  A Facebook friend of ours put us in touch with a woman named Jill from Pittsfield who had keets she was interested in selling.  She and Sonya worked out the details and met last Saturday in Auburn to swap veggies/cash for 6 keets.  The wee ones are a mere 10 days old at this point and are living for now inside a cat carrier on our porch.  We keep a heat lamp on them at night, but the porch has been sunny and warm enough on most days since their arrival that we can turn the lamp off during the day.  They are adorable:  fluffy, brown, alternately cheeping and sleeping, and eating a ton.  They are fiesty, too.  One zipped out this morning while I was putting in fresh water and enjoyed a quick tour of the porch until I was able to catch her and get her back in with the rest of her pals.  When they get a little bigger, we plan to transfer them to a larger crate and relocate them out in the sheep shed.  There they will probably stay until spring when we set them loose to terrorize the bugs!

Finally, we’re having a November potluck!  Come on over to the farm on Friday, 11/2, between 5 and 9 PM, bring along a dish to share, and catch up with us and whoever else shows up!  Dinner will probably be indoors unless we have an unexpected heat wave, but if it’s clear and not too chilly, we may get a bonfire going, too.  See you soon!

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