I was a limp rag by supper Friday night, which was unexpected because the only thing I’d had planned for the day was the arrival of Roger, the shearer.
I drove down to the farm at 4:30 AM to check Lily, my last pregnant ewe. No lambs. I returned at 6:30 to milk and do barn chores. At 8:30 I had strained the milk and was eating a quick breakfast, going over my lists to make sure I had everything ready for shearing, when the phone rang.
“Hi Sally!” said a cheerful voice. (With my name, I answer to anything.) “It’s Rick!”
“Rick! I’ve been so worried!”
The last time Rick delivered 100 bales of hay he had promised to be back in a couple of weeks: “Let’s just fill up the loft so you won’t be anxious.” A great idea, but of course he had not returned. When I emailed to say that my supply was running low, he promised to bring more hay last weekend. Surprise — no show. Then he emailed: definitely Thursday. I had Mike plow the driveway in preparation. No show. Now another snowstorm was on the horizon. I had been beside myself.
It’s easy to say that I should use another hay dealer, but difficult to actually find one. More and more farmers are moving to round bales, those giant hay rolls you see in fields. Because the hay is handled less, round bales are cheaper to make and cheaper to buy. Unfortunately they weigh between 500-1000 pounds apiece and you need a tractor with a bale spear to move them. With my set-up, I can only use traditional “small squares” (a silly name; they are rectangles) that weigh between 40-60 pounds. Fewer farmers put up small squares these days and fewer still will deliver them. Almost none will deliver less than a tractor-trailer load of six hundred bales. My loft can only fit three to four hundred bales, so my options among hay dealers are slim. Thus my teeth-gritted tolerance of Rick’s outrageous unreliability.
“I’m down at your barn right now, ready to unload,” Rick said cheerfully.
Eek! Roger was due in twenty minutes, the barn aisle wasn’t yet arranged for shearing, I hadn’t gathered all my gear, but — what choice did I have? “I’ll be right down.”
“No hurry,” Rick said kindly.
I did try to be firm. Down at the farm I looked up at him in the hayloft.
“Rick, you know, it would really help if you could let me know when plans change. I understand guys don’t like to call, but the lack of communication is a real problem and actually might be at the root of most divorces —”
Rick smiled. “Nah. Y’ know what causes most divorces these days?”
“Yup, that Facebook thing.”
Somehow the subject of his broken promises became lost as Rick held forth on the pitfalls of the internet. And though I have a quick temper, it’s hard for me to stay angry. Soon we were discussing my lambs (“I thought I might just slip a couple under my jacket,” said Rick) and his pigs and cattle, exactly as usual.
Three minutes after the hay was unloaded and Rick pulled out, Roger the shearer arrived.
Roger, like Rick, is my age but seems of an earlier generation. He is very small, very nimble, very mild-tempered. I have seen him rabbit-kicked in the belly by a ewe as big as he is but he never loses his temper or even says a word in objection. I love to watch him work.
I had decided he should shear Lily first, as, being heavily pregnant, Lily would be the most uncomfortable and perhaps hardest to handle.
She did look uncomfortable but Roger was gentle and swift and she barely squirmed.
It is always amazing to me how he can control big ewes with just the quiet placement of a hand or foot, or by tucking a head under his arm.
Each sheep took about fifteen minutes from start to finish. The older ewes were not only larger, but had udders to be carefully clipped around.
My jobs were to rake up the dirty rags of wool clippings, bag each fleece, and trim the sheep’s hooves.
Remember I predicted that lamb 03 would be fine once he understood the location of the milk bar? He has definitely got it now. The moment I put his mother, Mango, in the chair for her manicure, 03 darted in for a snack from a fresh angle.
I had planned to worm all the ewes while I had them immobilized, but when I took out my stainless steel drench syringe Friday morning I found its rubber O ring had disintegrated from old age. The drench syringe was useless. I tried to use a normal, plastic hypodermic syringe without its needle. This worked for a single ewe before Blackberry crushed it with one crunch of her molars. Worming would have to wait.
Roger sheared on. He reported that Briar, the ewe lamb from my dear old ewe Clover, was starting a bag. My guess is that she will deliver in early April. Since my ram was not sold until December, I may have a lamb or two into early May.
Shearing is a moment of truth for a shepherd. The wool is off and you can really evaluate the condition of your sheep. I’m pleased this year. The girls are in good shape, carrying much better weight. Nothing has changed in my feeding program except the quality of my hay. As fond as I am of Joe, my old hay man, and as steady and rock-solid reliable as he was, his hay was not nearly as good as that provided by the feckless Rick. Life is unfair.
At 2:30, when Roger left, all the ewes were shorn and foot-trimmed and wearing name tags. I love to have name tags on my sheep but it’s not terribly practical. We shall see how long they last.
I drove home. I was tired and my back ached from carrying hay and bending over sheep. I was just sitting down with coffee and a sandwich for a late lunch when I saw an email from the National Resource Conservation Service. Following a tip from a Maine farmer on my cow board, I had written to ask if the NRCS provided grants in New York to help with planting pastures.
They did indeed, a conservation officer now replied. However this was the last day to apply. Could I drive to the city an hour away and fill out all the paperwork, as well as register my farm with the Farm Service Agency, all before 4 PM?
Oh my goodness. I certainly would love to qualify for a grant. When I priced pasture seed for the back acres it came to over $6K, which I could never afford. However I was completely out of energy. Even with an adrenalin rush, I couldn’t imagine jumping in my car.
I telephoned the conservation officer. He was sober and not encouraging. “Yours would be an eleventh hour application.”
“I can’t drive up there in time but if you could fax the application to me — if I could call the FSA and they could fax their papers to me — I could fill it all out and fax it back by the deadline —” I was pleading.
He sounded dubious but he gave me the number of the FSA and said I could try.
I called the Farm Service Agency and spoke to a woman who listened intently and started to laugh. Her voice was warm. “If you can get it all done, of course we can try!”
What an angel. I promised to send her chocolate chip cookies in thanks, which made her laugh more.
For the next two hours I was over at the school, frantically filling out forms, calling the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), calling the National Resource Conservation Service to ask more questions, signing, signing, signing. At last it was done. Bunny in the school office was helping me to fax the twenty pages of forms back.
The NRCS fax machine was down. We tried over and over. The state fax would not pick up. It was ten minutes to four.
I called back the original conservation officer. By now he had fractionally mellowed. I think it was the chocolate chip cookies. “Well, this is what you could call the eleventh hour, plus fifty-nine minutes!” he said severely. But I could hear his underlying amusement. He told me that all the women in his office were standing over the fax machine, willing it to work. It remained unresponsive.
Amanda in our school office walked by. “Why don’t you scan and email the pages?”
Brilliant. At five to four, I pushed send, and my application made it in under the wire.
I don’t know if I’ll win a grant. I don’t know if I can accept a grant if I win it, as I will have to agree to transition my farm to organic practices over three years. Of course I would love for my farm to be certified organic — I have never used pesticides or herbicides in my life — but the higher cost of organic grain in this non-farming area may make it prohibitive. However I would not have the opportunity to explore these questions and possibilities if I did not apply. I plan to do a lot of research over vacation.
I sighed deeply when we sat down for supper. A very busy day.