October is a tricky month for farmers. One day it’s mild and beautiful─you take pause to admire the spectacle of Maine’s glorious fall foliage; the next day the temperature plunges, the wind picks up, and the threat of snow looms in the forecast. For the last few weeks I’ve been walking this line between preparing for winter and still trying to make the most of what’s left of the season, but with Samhain just days away, and Thanksgiving not far off─this is really it. The end of the 2018 growing season.
If I’ve learned anything about living and farming in Maine over the course of my 38 years, it’s that you don’t want to be caught unprepared when winter sets in. My personal deadline for all farm and household winterizations is Thanksgiving; experience has taught me that by the third Thursday of November, generally the weather is too cold and windy for much in the way of outdoor work, the ground is frozen, and the threat of snow is in the forecast. Having the apiary put to bed, critters snuggly and protected from the elements, and all equipment stowed away puts this farmers’ mind at ease and allows me to immerse myself in the festivities that come with the Persephone Period and the Dark Days of the Year.
Winter livestock preparations have been the main focus here at Runamuk throughout September and October, but with more urgency as we’ve moved further into October.
The shed attached to the garage, which already had chain-link fencing covering the long wall, I converted into a Winter Coop for the chickens. On the open end I built a wall to close it in, then covered it with chicken wire. Roosts were assembled, along with a set of “Deluxe Nesting Boxes”─only the best for my ladies, I tell them!
The weather in early October was still mild however, and I really wanted to run the flock across the plot where I intend to plant perennial fruit trees next spring─so I held off on moving the girls into their winter digs.
Sheep: Free to Good Home
In the meanwhile, Runamuk was offered a pair of sheep. Yes! For reals! Beautiful purebred Romney sheep─free, and so sweet and sociable they’re sure to melt hearts.
Lily and Miracle were offered to us by friends we know through the local 4H group we were once a part of. Nina Blauvelt reached out to me to say that this had been her daughter Emily’s last year at the fair, as she is now a senior with a job and looking at colleges for next year. They’re downsizing their sheep herd, but these 2 in particular are very special to Emily, and she didn’t have the heart to send them to auction. The Blauvelts were looking for a good home for the pair and naturally they thought of me with my new #foreverfarm; was I interested?
Initially, I said no. Four years ago I had a not-so-great experience with free sheep that made a lasting impression (check out: Sheep in the Garden to learn the whole story!); ultimately it was a valuable lesson in the importance of proper farm infrastructure. That same year taught me to be careful not to take on more than I can handle─and I’ve been very mindful of that concept as I’ve been settling Runamuk in here. My hands are already full. I’ve been out straight all summer (and loving every minute of it! don’t get me wrong) but sheep were no longer part of the plan for Runamuk.
The next morning, as I was driving eastward toward Fairfield and the office at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, the sunrise painted vibrant shades of crimson and yellow across the sky, while the radio playing only my favorite songs─it hit me all of a sudden that I really wanted to be the one to give Emily’s beloved sheep a good home. With 13 acres of grass to my name, and fencing materials already on hand, I really had no reason not to take them. What’s more, grass-eating sheep would fill a gap in my farm and homestead operations that would be too beneficial to pass up: namely, added grass management, another source of manure for the gardens, and a red meat option for my family. Plus, sheep would add a definitive cute-and-cuddly feature to Runamuk; as much as I love them, bees and chickens are not necessarily the most endearing of creatures when it comes to marketing.
Right then and there I pulled over into the break-down lane to send Nina a message as cars and tractor-trailor trucks zoomed past me on Route 201A.
I wasn’t sure how soon the newcomers would arrive, so in case it was sooner rather than later, I put together a slick little moveable sheep-shelter the very next day. It’s similar to the chicken tractors, but without the nesting boxes and the roosts, which makes the structure light as a feather.
I was pretty pleased with the thing, and it looked great set up in the pasture with the electric net sheep-fencing. A few days later however, autumn turned on it’s heel, wind and rain rolled in, the temperatures plunged, and that lightweight summer-shelter was literally blown away. I found pieces of it strewn across the yard; wryly, I decided that the time for temporary shelters was over, and set myself to work on a sheep-shed that would serve through our rugged Maine winters.
A Mom Win
Meanwhile, with temperatures plunging at night, and some pretty intense winds, I decided it was time to move the flock into the Winter Coop. My chicken-tractors are only meant to be used through the summer months, and as such are open at either end. I was increasingly worried about the flock suffering at night, so I made the final preparations to the Winter Coop (a door lol) and the boys helped me move the birds in.
With a child on the Autism spectrum, and having faced divorce and come out on the other side, being a mom and a farmer at the same time has not easy for me (that’s a whole post in and of itself!). Yet that evening I felt like maybe─just maybe─I’m an OK mom.
Bundled against the cold and whipping wind, headlamps strapped to our heads as we traipsed back and forth across the lawn in the dark, carrying bird after bird─my boys performed like true farm-kids. I demonstrated with the first chicken how I wanted the birds to be held as they carried them across the yard, and how to settle each bird onto a roost inside the coop. They did a great job of it, and with 63 birds it was no small task. When it was finished I felt a sense of relief for the chickens, along with this immense feeling of fulfillment. Afterall, it was for my children that I became a farmer in the first place, and to be able to impart some of these skills upon them is hugely important to me. In that moment it really felt like I might actually be doing an OK job of it.
With the chickens taken care of, I could turn my attention back to preparing for the arrival of sheep to Runamuk. Wanting to keep all the livestock fairly close to the house for the winter, I decided to build the Sheep-Shed off the backside of the garage using schedule 40 PVC conduit, and some wooden platforms that the previous owners had left behind. I covered the whole thing in Tufflite Greenhouse Film (I use this stuff for everything! it’s the best!) that I bought at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and voila!─Winter Sheep-Shed!
Having both chickens and sheep based off the garage, meant that I only needed to rig up one electric fence charger to energize fencing for both species. It felt good to be able to make use of one of the chargers I inherited from James Murphy during my tenure at his farm in Starks. That man did a lot for me in his afterlife, and even though I didn’t end up at his farm permanently, I’m beholden to Jim for the lessons learned there, and for the tools, equipment, books and furniture that I inherited from him. I’ll be forever grateful, and I’m still glad that I chose to name my dog after the man.
The Blauvelts came last Monday evening to deliver Lily and Miracle to me. I gave them the grand tour: Runamuk’s #foreverfarm and my great big house (aka – “my castle”). Nina, her husband Gordon, and their daughter Emily, have followed my journey to farm ownership since our days in 4H, and they’ve watched my progress this summer on Instagram. As farmers themselves, they could see right away the potential this property has for me and for Runamuk. I think they felt really good about leaving their beloved sheep with me.
Emily led her 2 prized ewes: Lily and Miracle, across the yard to the paddock I’d created around the Sheep-Shed and the backside of the garage with my electric net fencing. This area had not been touched by the chickens, and despite the cold and the decreasing day-light hours, there’s still some lush grass in that spot; the 2 sheep were eager to graze when they saw it.
I got a quick download on sheep-care from the Blauvelts as Lily and Miracle checked out their new accommodations, along with the promise of help should the need ever arise, then they bade us all farewell. And so now I have sheep!
Threat of Snow in the Forecast
We’ve already had a couple of snow-squalls here in the mountains of western Maine, and the threat of snow is in the forecast again this weekend. Typically these threats don’t amount to much in October, and, because the ground is not yet frozen, we generally don’t see any accumulation until around Thanksgiving─hence my Thanksgiving deadline for winter preparations. The window is fast closing and I know it. Every day I’m checking chores off my list one at a time, so that when Thanksgiving rolls around I can hunker down inside my house and just enjoy the season to come.
There’s something magical about winter─maybe it’s just winter in Maine? or maybe I’m the only one in the world who feels this way, lol. Regardless, I find snowstorms absolutely enchanting: the way the snowflakes cascade from the sky and the stillness of the world around you. I revel in the energy of storms; the power of wind and the might of nature beyond our control reminding me that there are greater forces at work here. Sunrises after an ice storm are enough to bring tears to my eyes (and not because they’re blinding!); I adore the way trees’ limbs and branches are coated with ice, and how the brilliant pink and orange hues of the sunrise glint off them. And I love, love, love the way a power outage can draw the family together; playing boardgames by candlelight is a special kind of magic.
Once I loathed the Dark Days; it’s easy to feel isolated and to slip into the winter-blues at this time of the year. I’ve learned to take this as a time for self-reflection, a time for honoring the ancestors through tradition, and a time to be with family and friends. Mostly though, I think I’ve learned to see the good and bad in everything─the seasons, people, animals…even the slimy and the scary ones. I’ve learned to appreciate life for whatever it is, to accept it for what it isn’t, and to just be grateful that I’m here to experience anything at all.
Our world is a beautiful place when we chose to embrace it, and life really can be what we make of it. If we would only try: one foot in front of the other; one day at a time─there will be inevitable failures and set backs, but if we keep moving forward in the direction of our goals and dreams─there will certainly be progress too. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing the way we look at something. <3
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