Sheep in the garden & a writing contest

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Much of society dreads the coming of winter with its frigid temperatures, long dark nights and back-breaking shoveling—yet farmers and homesteaders alike breathe a sigh of relief that the frantic pace of the growing season is behind us. Sure–winter means shoveling walk-ways and thawing frozen water buckets for livestock—but it also means quiet time, and after this first growing season on our new property, working to expand our farming efforts, I am absolutely ready for some quiet time and the slower pace that Old Man Winter brings with him.

Sheep at Runamuk

sheep at runamuk

This was our young ram–a Navajo Churro mix that we named Darth (as in Darth Vader).

So much has happened since I last had time to write that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess it all began when the sheep arrived on the farm. 4 ewes and a ram of mixed blood-lines were gifted to us. Or cursed upon us—depending on how you want to look at it. The topic of sheep leading up to their arrival was a source of conflict between hubby and I.

You’re not always going to agree with your husband, that’s just plain fact. And couples who farm together are prone to more disagreements than those who don’t. It’s just the nature of the beast—he has his image of what this farm should be, and I have mine—the chore for us is to create a farm that blends those images so that we are are both content and satisfied.

Sheep are definitely part of our long-term strategy for Runamuk. Keith and I see them as a viable means of maintaining pastures once the goats and pigs have done the job of reclaiming this overgrown acreage. They absolutely were not on the list for this year. “But they were FREE.”

So the sheep came, and we set them up inside the electric net fencing alongside the garden with a temporary shelter. We didn’t tell the sheep that the fencing wasn’t charged (the charger we’d bought wasn’t quite strong enough to power the net-fencing, and the uneven, overgrown terrain grounded the fence out making it utterly useless).  They respected the fence for a month or so and did a beautiful job clearing the overgrown weeds—the grasses and goldenrod that threatened to overtake my garden.

I liked having the sheep. The satisfaction that comes with taking care of livestock is unparalleled. Each critter has a unique personality, and the relationship between farmer and animal is one of trust and respect that can be hard to match among people.

Sheep in the garden

Then the sheep realized that we’d been fooling them all that time–that there was a veritable salad bar just next door—and afterall, who wants dinner when they can go right to desert?

Early in the morning on the day of my thirty-fourth birthday I discovered the sheep in the garden. I was devastated. Happy birthday to me.

Within two weeks they’d completely decimated the eighth of an acre that I’d put so much effort into cultivating. My crops for market, for my CSA and for my family were gone. And with sheep in the garden the prospect of planting for fall and winter harvest went out the window. You can’t plant seeds if the sheep are going to trample the tender sprouts or munch the seedlings.

Such is the life of the beginning farmer. Who knew sheep had such a taste for vegetables? Seriously—in none of the books we’d read, none of the blogs I’ve followed along with—did anyone ever mention this. We’d expected such behavior from the goats, but not so much from the sheep. Sigh.

I tried to look on the positive side. The sheep weren’t just eating the vegetables, but also the weeds that had gotten away from me.  They were also fertilizing the soil. These were both good things, right?

Note: With winter fast approaching, shelter and fencing still to get up before snow falls, the sheep have since been sold to a farm in Albion who are better established than we are. Despite my bitterness over losing the garden, I was sad to see them go.  We will have sheep at Runamuk again, but only when the time is right (I hope).

Enter the writing contest

With the garden gone, my time was freed up, and after stumbling upon Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write contest, I decided on impulse to enter the competition. That’s right—I write romantic fiction. I have for years.  I’ve kept it to myself, a personal indulgence that I hid like a dirty little secret, only sharing with the world the non-fiction works that I have done—the various articles and the blog.

By entering the first chapter of my novel “Saving Greene Farm” into Harlequin’s competition, I effectively came out of the closet as a romance novelist. It was a scary step for me. I’m still frightened of the repercussions, but I wanted to share my stories with the world. Stories about farmers and homesteaders, stories about living more sustainably and finding love along the way. Stories that I would want to read, and stories that I’m certain other people would enjoy reading too.

There are other stories I want to write too. I’d like to write a farm memoir about reclaiming this abandoned and overgrown farm. I aspire to do a non-fiction work about beekeeping, and another about pollinator conservation. I’ve even contemplated writing and illustrating my own children’s books.

But this story came first. The story of a young farmer desperately trying to save her family’s 7th-generation farm, and the corporate CEO who steps away from his life in the city to pursue a more meaningful existence. You can read the first chapter here.

Tragedy hits home

Dad and the boys

My dear Daddy.

It was in the midst of this So You Think You Can Write competition that my father lost his long suffering battle with COPD.  For the last several years I’ve been looking after my father, whose health has slowly deteriorated. Back in March he took a turn for the worse, and all summer, between gardening, and managing and attending the Madison Farmers’ Market, I’ve gone back and forth to Daddy’s several times a week to take care of him as well. I’ve been buying his groceries, making him food, helping out with small chores around his apartment, bringing his laundry home to add to the mound of our own laundry, and coordinating the services of the Hospice volunteers that came to help out.

On September 25th he was taken to the hospital by ambulance, and I joined Daddy’s brothers and sisters─my aunts and uncles─his mother (my Nana), and my brother and sister, to sit by his side until he slipped away on the 26th.

My father was a kind-hearted christian man, who had faced more than his fair share of struggles in his fifty-five years. He was devastated when my mother divorced him (I was thirteen at the time), and he never fully recovered. He had dreams and aspirations that he never saw come true, spending his entire life working in the local wood mills until two years ago when he reached the point where he was just too sick to do it anymore.  But he was generous and supportive of his children, he loved all three of us dearly, and he was a sweetheart of a grandfather to my two boys.  If you’re so inclined, you can read his obituary here.

A Top 25 Finalist!

The period for entry into the contest came to a close, with nearly five-hundred first chapters submitted by authors from around the world. The top 25 finalists were to be announced on or around Monday October 6th, and between funeral arrangements, and sorting Daddy’s things my manuscript was far from finished, though I kept plucking away at it–a little more every day. When I did not receive “The Call” from Harlequin Monday or Tuesday I figured that I hadn’t made the cut, and breathed a sigh of relief. I would continue to finish the novel, take a break from it, then come back to edit the thing, and then finally submit it to Harlequin through the regular channels.

That Thursday we went for a hike through the woods to tape rock maples so that they would be easier to locate next February when we wanted to tap for maple syrup. I was a beautiful and relaxing autumn walk with hubby and my eldest son, the goats and the two dogs.  I was stunned to see an email there from Harlequin when I got back home. I’d made the top 25! I was ecstatic! I was overjoyed! I was so proud!

And then panic set in.

I spent the next twenty-four hours writing and editing, right up until the noon-time deadline. But I managed to send in a finished manuscript that definitely could have used a bit more polishing, but was─for all intents and purposes—finished.

Now we wait.

Selling my book would make a huge difference here at Runamuk. Yes–you can absolutely bootstrap your way to success, but a good chunk of money would go a long way in establishing the infrastructure that this farm needs (a priority on the list of investments is fencing!).  We have a long way to go, and unfortunately it takes money to make money.

From the 25 finalists, the competition will be narrowed down to 10, and then—by mid-November—a winner will be selected. The grand prize is a two-book publishing contract with Harlequin.

Dedicated to Dad

I am so honored—and validated—to be selected as one of the top 25. Even if my book doesn’t win, I know it will be published and when it is, I will dedicate it to my dear father. For a conservative Christian man, to discover that one of his children not only disputed the existence of God and Christ, but also was a liberal granola-crunching back-to-the-land eco-activist, and for that man to continue to support and love such a daughter shows the quality of man that my Daddy was. I never had to wonder if my father loved me, never. He supported my ambitions and my dreams, and despite his debilitating illness he longed to come to the farm and dig in just to help me succeed. For that I will always be grateful that Dana Walter Richards was my father. This one’s for you Daddy!

So we’ll see what happens next. The top 10 finalists will be selected on November 3rd. Whatever happens, you can be sure this is not the end of the road, so stay tuned folks!

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