I’ve been writing a lot about sheep lately. I suppose it is the season for sheep adventures. Soon, will be bees since we’re gearing up for the Tupelo honey flow, the chicken eggs could also be a hot topic since production is steadily increasing with 91 eggs collected just today. The summer garden is about to be planted and one of my silkie hens just hatched out a duckling from an egg that was mischievously laid in her nest. I could keep a blog going with gardening content alone or animal husbandry or Andy’s chore list, I guess that is what homesteading is about, but this post is about our oldest kid’s recent birthday. He’s 6. Bullfrog turned 6 years old a couple of days ago and while it was a bit tough, because that’s the morning Yoda died, Bullfrog didn’t know it and we celebrated him and our love for our boy.
We did not have a big party or extravagant gifts. We did hang a few streamers and give him a few thoughtful books and a container to store his Legos. He was really excited about the container and I laughed when he exclaimed ‘yay, my own container!’ Our kid is awesome. Andy hand picked a sling shot and a multi tool for him, which is a step up from his pocket knife, because it has a good pair of pliers.
My sister, Olive and her husband sent him a fresh sketch pad, a ‘how to draw people’ book and some nice colored pencils. She’s an artist and she directed a children’s art studio in Atlanta for over a decade, so she’s the one who gives the easel, painting supplies, thoughtful games and more.
Andy’s parents Dan ‘grandad’ and Linda ‘grandma’ (formerly Goma, but we’re working on the transition to grandma after almost 5 years of being called Goma) came over for some grilled chicken and carrot cake and Bullfrog felt like a prince.
He’s a thoughtful boy. He adores his siblings and is incredibly intelligent. He has a memory like an elephant (I hear they never forget) and a very keen awareness of right and wrong. His heart is huge and he loves his neighbors. I am so glad that I get to be his mom. He’s growing fast and changing every day and I love that I get to be a witness to it all. I get to enjoy these fleeting years with my children and watch as Bullfrog paves the way for his siblings and continues to show Andy and I how to tackle this season of raising up children to be awesome adults. The days are long but the years are short is what I am reminded. I remember his birthday vividly. I remember the struggles to figure out motherhood (still working on that and probably always will) and I remember long before Andy and I met, praying for a husband and children. I didn’t always pray and I certainly didn’t always want a family or to get married and have children but when my heart was softened to the idea, I hoped I’d be a wife and a mother someday and now I am. They are all precious blessings and I’m so thankful we had the opportunity to celebrate our oldest and the last 6 years of life we’ve gotten to share with him.
There’s no easy way to lose an animal. The farm’s ram, Dragonwool Yoda passed away on Thursday and we’re frustrated to say the least. This is our first time losing a sheep to an illness and although we think we know the culprit, it doesn’t make it easier.
We have always been warned that sheep go down fast. We can attest to that fact now from our own experience. After treating him for what appears to be internal parasites and doing everything recommended, he still died. It was too late when we realized he was thin (he had an amazing fleece and showed no other sickly symptoms other than his body weight which is hard to visually observe under a gorgeous wool coat) and despite our best efforts to give him plenty of calories, supplements, medicine and time to heal, he’s gone.
I think the hardest lesson for me is feeling like a complete failure and terrible steward and admitting that a sheep died in our care. I know that death is a fact of life. I know that Yoda was a ram and not a person. I know that farming is hard and not for the faint, I’ve written about it over and over on our Urbanna Farm blog and experienced it over and over with different species. The sheep have a special place in my heart. They are special and losing a young, seemingly healthy, very promising ram just stinks. A gal who I’ve come to know and love sold Yoda to the farm and introduced us to the world of Jacob sheep. She’s become like a sister to us and I couldn’t even call her to give her the news. Andy had to do it. She’s been nothing but supportive (the entire farming/sheep community has been) because she knows. Sheep people know. She knows life happens and things don’t always go as planned. She’s been there and she still stands behind the breed and gives the encouragement needed to persevere. We will. Of course we will. Another amazing lady called me today to encourage and remind me of God’s sovereignty in all things. It’s exactly what I needed to hear.
We didn’t fail. All of the other sheep are healthy. With the exception of one of the ewes lambing early and her lambs not being viable, we are still going strong. The rest of the flock is expected to lamb any day now and we are hoping for a strong healthy crop of lambs. Hopefully they’ll all get the best of what Yoda had to offer. We’ll observe them carefully and the flock as a whole and continue to learn what good shepherding is all about. We strive to be excellent stewards. We want to produce excellent genetics and breed quality animals that need minimal medical intervention. We still want to grow our own socks and we’ll work toward that goal as long as we have the opportunity and knowledge and resources to do so. Dragonwool Yoda taught us some good and hard lessons about life. I’m thankful.
3 more ewes are coming to the farm on Saturday. They are pretty girls from the Canoe Lake flock and are being sold by a neat couple who raises dexter cattle in TN and wanted to have sheep as sort of a novelty addition on their farm. They brought the sheep home and soon realized that their dogs weren’t too pleased with the new sheep or maybe they were too pleased and viewed the sheep as play things, so in everyone’s best interest the sheep were posted for sale. My friend Alena from Dragonwool Acres tagged me in the ad on Facebook and the fun began. We asked Don (the owner of Family Tree Farm) if he’d be interested in adding the sheep to the existing flock, because we sure were interested and when his reply was ‘let’s do it’ I started figuring out acquisition logistics.
We have never used a livestock hauler before but that looked like our only option because Andy is completely booked from now to forever in preparation for a new season on the farm which means new babies (animal and human alike), new plantings, more eggs than ever and so so so much more. I get dizzy just thinking about what his daily lists look like much less trying to figure out what he’s got going on any given day, week or month.
After following leads for 4 different livestock transports and waiting for two other buyers to pick up the sheep, I did not expect them to actually join the flock here. After all, there was a deadline for the sheep to be rehomed and none of the haulers were available for a few weeks and other buyers were surely going to pick them up before us. Then, we arranged for Willie (Don’s son) to meet the sheep just west of Atlanta this Saturday. It’s sort of a middle ground meeting place which is incredibly helpful for us since we can’t make the trip all the way to Cleveland TN during this crazy busy season.
I am very excited to meet these girls and since I’m finally able to put faces with names of the Jacobs already here, it will be neat to figure out faces, names and personalities and eventually fleeces… These girls will need to be sheared right away too, which is another adventure to deal with. In the meantime, we are waiting for this year’s Jacob lambs to be born and getting the flock’s paperwork in order and preparing for our own sweet baby and painting cabinets (one of these days) and enjoying the craziness that comes with farming and homesteading. As Susan Brant always says, ‘never a dull moment.’
I didn’t want to sell it. I wasn’t planning on letting it go. I had just about 3 pounds of the most beautiful, sweet smelling beeswax that you’ve ever laid eyes on sitting on my shelf when I got the phone call. ‘Hey Melissa, this is D. we’re friends with R and we want to … and we’re looking for beeswax… starting a candle company… the refinery…’ I think my first response was something like ‘that’s awesome, but we don’t have any beeswax right now but if I hear of someone else with clean/chemical free beeswax then I’ll let you know. We are a very small operation and we don’t have bulk beeswax for what you’re looking for…’ It went something like that because I wasn’t going to sell my last couple of pounds of wax that I worked really hard to render and get all the bee parts cleaned out of to the competition. No way! After all, I just started making candles and needed it for my own candles and lip balms and soap. Besides, beeswax is valuable. At least to me. At least my beeswax is valuable to me because I know that it is 100% clean and free of toxins. I know our bee yard is very secluded and we don’t treat our bees with medications and our honey ‘crops’ are wild and aren’t being sprayed with herbicides and pesticides and other junk. Mosquito control doesn’t even fly over. I know it takes 7-9 pounds of honey to make a single pound of beeswax and that a honey bee spends its entire life to make 1 teaspoon of honey. It’s valuable. And it’s sold. Andy sold my beeswax.
After I spoke with D for about 10 more minutes guaranteeing him I’d let him and his wife know if I hear of any beeswax, I put Andy on the phone because of some other mutual interests and friendships. After my hackles went down (did you read the part about them starting a candle company and them being all professional with a cool name? ‘The Refinery’ is the name of their candle company by the way and Deliciously Unrefined is our farm business’ slogan by the way-weird, right?) and I heard Andy give a dissertation on honey and beeswax and beekeeping and then ask how much beeswax they need and heard him say-oh just a pound? Then I sort of gave him a glare and ‘don’t even think about it’ and then I totally caved and started looking for the scale to see how much I had. Because I’m a sucker and I felt guilty for having jealous thoughts and for hoarding my beeswax-even though it’s not technically hoarding when you use it and make things and sell those things that you make. That’s actually a business even if it’s a tiny business. Maybe it’s more of a hobby, but it doesn’t matter. My beeswax is sold and we’re actually having dinner with these strangers in a few weeks, because Andy also invited them over for dinner sometime and I suppose I’m going to have to get over the fact that I have to wait a while before we can harvest anymore beeswax for my own candles. That’s okay. Lord willing, we will harvest more and I’ll get over myself.
The shearer came, she saw and she absolutely conquered. Since this is our first experience with wool sheep and we had zero point of reference for what to expect from a shearer, with the exception of our personal experience ‘shearing’ two of the ewes when they arrived on the farm, I must say that I am blown away by our experience. Nicole and I had been messaging back and forth for a couple of months when I asked if she’d come out to shear the small flock of Jacobs on the farm and when she showed up, I was a little nervous. You see, we have zero experience with fiber animals. Zero. Unless these last few months of tending to these Jacobs count then count us out of the fiber farming world. What’s a micron count? What’s luster and staple length? What exactly does VM stand for? These are all little things we are learning but I certainly don’t consider myself a fiber snob although I aspire to be one someday, because when part of your life includes ‘shepherding a small flock of wool sheep’ it’s kind of cool to know what you’re talking about.
So, Nicole arrived and made us feel right at home (we were actually in our front yard) and made us feel completely normal and like the best clients she’s ever had, which is simply because she’s awesome and knows her stuff and is happy to teach and share what she knows with the likes of us.
Andy had already loaded the sheep onto a livestock trailer in anticipation of shearing which was a good thing since Yoda sent us (andy, the kids on myself) on a wild ram chase for over an hour earlier that day. The sheep weren’t too happy to be out of the pasture, but they are all relieved to have lost their fleeces before they melt in the sunshine and warm weather we’ve been having. Nicole and Amy (her partner in crime) and Andy trimmed hooves while she taught us about how to evaluate body scores and eyelids and gum color to determine if anyone is anemic or needs some extra TLC. It is really nice to have a starting point for the flock’s health so that we can keep good records of everyone through the seasons.
It was also really great to identify names with faces, because the truth is that I only knew 3 of their names and that’s kind of sad, all things considered. But, they have tons of area to roam and they aren’t exactly coming to get their heads scratched when I go out into the field to say hello. That’s okay, because I almost have their names down now and I have a much greater appreciation for each of them after our shearing on Friday afternoon. They are awesome animals and I’m excited to see the lambs they produce and to improve their genetics with each generation that is born. Sheep are great.
We learned about Nicole’s business and ministry with Adonais Alpacas in North Georgia and are completely inspired and blown away by what she does. She’s a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of love and generosity. Thankfully, she not only shears sheep (and Alpacas) but she also processes the fiber. Hallelujah! So, the fleeces went back to North Georgia with her and will return as roving, which is the step before spinning into yarn. That seems much more manageable at this stage than learning how to skirt, wash, tumble, card, rove (?) and spin with zero experience and zero equipment. I’m not writing a tutorial on how to process wool anytime soon, because I don’t know. I don’t even know how to knit. Working backwards here, huh? Or maybe from the ground up which is exactly how we like it.
The soap is technically ready to use but I’m too nervous to try it. I’ll let Andy try a few bars and make sure it won’t burn my skin off or leave any kind of dangerous rash or poison me before I use it. I made 2 different batches and decided to wait before making any more in order to make sure they actually work. Andy’s brave and honest and I need a brave and honest soul to test out my newest craft obsession before I move forward. After all, I didn’t even know what ‘trace’ was before I delved into my first soap making soirée. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you what it means now, because it’s still a foreign language to me, but if you’re a soap maker then you know what I’m talking about.
Speaking of foreign languages and new hobbies and obsessions, we are shearing the Jacob sheep in a couple of days. Technically a professional is shearing the sheep because we sheared 2 of them when they first arrived after almost dying and taking Andy with them on their trip home (see ‘the great sheep escape’ or the ‘miracle on the interstate’ or whatever I entitled that post for more info). Anyway, after that rough chop shop of a shearing job we did and cutting the poor girls one too many times, we decided to spare their skin and have someone who actually knows what they’re doing come out and show us the ropes.
She’ll be here on Friday afternoon and on Saturday I’m going to a friend’s place in Augusta to watch the shearer in action again and to help with the beginning steps of cleaning a raw fleece. Then, the plan is to send off some of the fleeces to a professional (fiber mill) to be processed into yarn and handle a few of the raw fleeces ourselves. This new culture of fiber farming is absolutely fascinating. Do you know the work it takes to get a wool fleece off of an animal and into a pair of socks?! No? I sure don’t. I’ve never done it. If you have then please move to Emanuel county ga so we can be neighbors and you can show me your ways, because skirting, carding, roving, spinning, suint water, worsted, 2 ply, hand spinning, spinning wheel, carders, felting and all of those other terms have just opened my eyes to the fact that I am absolutely clueless when it comes to fiber farming.
I don’t even know how to knit, but I am determined to make a wool hat and eventually some socks out of this deal. This should be interesting and I’ll keep you posted because that’s what a blog is for, right?
Years ago, when Andy and I first met he asked me if I wanted to see his soap. This was after he showed me his bee hives, garden and chicken coop. I’m sure I answered something like, ‘Really? You make soap? That’s so cool, I’ve always wanted to make soap. That’s really fascinating. Of course I want to see your soap.’ I did think it was cool and fascinating and I did want to make my own soap, but I just couldn’t believe I’d been invited to see another layer of my (unbeknownst to me) future husband’s many gifts and creative talents.
So, I saw his soap stash and his lip balms and essential oils (I think that was all in the same cabinet) and was really impressed. The soap wasn’t pretty. It didn’t make awesome suds and occasionally it didn’t cure long enough so the lye would completely burn your skin off and it left a terrible residue in the bath tub, but I was still smitten with soap and chickens and bee hives and eventually the urban farmer who considered himself nothing of the sort but, really enjoyed all of those farmy things and is now full time farming with me and our brood and my new found love of soap making. That’s right! 7 years or so after that day I walked in and saw his soapbox I have finally finally finally made my first batch of soap.
It is so fresh that I can’t use it yet and won’t know how it suds or cleans or works for at least another month, because it needs to cure, but it’s beautiful and with the exception of the lye and the natural fragrance oil it is made from ingredients that we produce here on the farm like goat milk and beef tallow and another fat that I’m too embarrassed to talk about right now, because it was a complete accident but is actually a legitimate ingredient used for soap making. I just thought it was beef tallow but it wasn’t. So, my first bars will be quite interesting and remind me of the time a chicken toe was left in the collard greens that we ate for Thanksgiving with my family one year. We can laugh about it now, because we know that chicken feet make excellent stock, but at the time Andy quickly put the toe in a napkin and I made him keep quiet so my sisters wouldn’t find out.
Back to the soap: I only made a half batch to experiment and I used a basic recipe from Mother Earth News, substituting the water in the recipe with some frozen goat milk that I had on hand when there was a surplus of goat milk and no one to consume it. I used the lye calculator from Brambleberry (a big soap making supplier/company), got my supplies together and went for it while Andy and the kids were down at the river and hunting for arrowheads.
It looks and smells great and I didn’t even realize my accidental tallow mistake until we were sitting down to dinner and I told Andy that I didn’t have enough tallow in the freezer and had to melt it and strain it before using so it would be really clean and he said, ‘honey that’s not tallow. The tallow is all in the crock in the barn.’ I was hysterically laughing about my first batch and big mistake until I quickly looked at the lye calculator and lo and behold my crazy ingredient is completely legitimate and apparently popular enough to be listed as an official soap fat option. Let’s just say that if this soap turns out to be the best of all my future experiments, including the ones I’m going to try with olive and coconut oils and beeswax then I’m going to have to render a lot more chicken fat.
We live on 1100 acres in the heart of Georgia. 1100 acres! That’s a lot. That’s a lot of land. Land with pastures, ponds, woods and a river. We are on a mile of the Ohoopee River. A mile! It’s surreal. Really. We are caretakers of all of this space and loads of animals. There are beef cows and sheep and dairy goats and a beautiful Jersey milk cow and horses and dogs and chickens and ducks and so much more. There are wild pigs and coyotes and bobcats and deer and who knows what else.
How did we get here? I know it’s crazy. We’ve moved a ton in our short marriage and have lived on 4 different farms. The first was an internship, 2nd and 3rd are where we established our own farm business and now Andy’s got a good gig here on this farm as the manager/caretaker/keep everything alive and growinger/make a business modeler/and more and while we’d love to have our own place someday this is where we are today.
We’ve rented different properties and farmed on 2 of our last rentals. The first farm we rented was 40 acres and the second was 26. We carved ourselves little spots out of those abandoned acres that were no longer being utilized for homesteading and cleaned up junk and fed the soil with loads of compost and then moved on for different reasons in the best interest of our family.
From Savannah to South Carolina back to Savannah and now near Swainsboro Ga and we’re just getting started. Our original goals haven’t changed much and while our business and work keeps evolving, we are still pressing towards our main desires or being able to care for the needs of the hungry, the orphans among us, the widows, our parents and our children’s children. We aren’t there yet.
For now, we are here cultivating and taming some of these wild 1100 acres and it’s awesome. We are simply stewards of these wide open spaces. XO.
I’d never butchered a chicken. 6ish years of chicken butchering and hundreds of chickens processed since we started farming and I never actually fully butchered a single chicken.
Somehow I managed to always be at the end of the processing assembly line. I managed to be the one who rinsed the birds or bagged them up to be shrink wrapped or ran the drinks and snacks or made the lunches or managed the kids, but I never did the deed. I ‘knew’ how it was done. I’d observed Andy and others dozens of times to have a full and complete understanding of the entire chicken butchering process. But, the knives were always in someone else’s hands. Until today.
Today we invited a couple of friends to a chicken butchering ‘class.’ We actually invited whoever was interested in learning from a local farming Facebook group, but our friends just so happened to be the ones who came out. I’m glad it was them. We knew them. So, when Andy realized that I’d never actually killed a chicken and we decided that it was finally time to stop vicariously butchering chickens and I cried, I’m glad it was my friend who was there to hug me and not a complete stranger wondering what the big deal was.
It is a big deal. It’s a big deal to us, because I often find myself defending our choice to raise our food and especially to butcher our own animals. It’s a big deal to take an animal’s life even if the sole purpose of that animal was to feed our family. It’s our choice to eat meat and it’s our choice to raise it the best and most humane way possible and then to end its life in the most humane way possible.
I can justify it all day long, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy. Satisfying? Yes, indeed. Not because I take satisfaction in butchering animals. Not at all. It’s not easy. However, I am deeply satisfied knowing that the food I serve my family was raised by our own hands. I’m satisfied knowing that I can now process, for the table, any bird and that I am no longer the ‘expert’ with no hands on experience. I’m satisfied knowing that Andy can count on me to come alongside him on the next butchering day and from field to freezer I can manage to butcher chickens. I’m satisfied knowing that I can be a little vulnerable and honest and completely confident in my chicken butchering confessions.
There are a few things that make my heart sing. Cardinals, gardens, old houses, handmade goods, Jesus, my family, honey bees… you know big and little things that just make me glad. So, when we moved to this little town (we’re not actually in the town but near enough) and we discovered a little community of artists and makers and shakers, it was awesome! It made life in the country feel a little more rich and full. It made me glad. Something else that made me glad was this mug that I was just given by our friends behind the scenes at Brasher Clay. It was made for me. At least that’s what I thought when I first spotted it at the market…
But, I left it on the table and took the kids to the bubble snow that was blowing after the Christmas parade, because real snow and Swainsboro, GA don’t have a lot in common. Still, I coveted that mug. Andy reminded me that we have a cupboard of mugs (including half a dozen from the Brasher collection but we didn’t have one like mine…
So, a few days later when I took some honey over to Jacquie she handed me a bag and in it was MY MUG!!! MY MUG!!! MY MUG that looks like a.bee skep and matches my beeswax. It’s just the little things in life that can make me do cart wheels sometimes. Handmade goods and thoughtful friends are definitely some of them. XO.