Monday, October 13, 2014

Six weeks old!

It's been hard to write for the blog lately. For one, there isn't as much time. In particular, we're up all hours of the night, and so my previously much-cherished and peaceful early mornings from 4am to sheep-feeding time are now more likely to be spent in bed trying to get another hour in, or at least enough sleep that I can get through the workday without sleeping at my desk or, worse, on my feet in front of a class.

We've been lucky, though. Our little bundle of joy does actually sleep through the night already. Not all the way through the night, but enough of it. The only problem is that she has to be latched on to Mom to do so. This makes Aimee achy from not being able to turn over, and of course she's missing out on REM sleep.

Even so, farm life goes on, and if these days aren't all to be a blur, some record must be kept. I find myself going back over the blog several times a year to find out when it was that we did such-and-such a thing, or which sheep gave birth to which lamb, and so on. The value of having a diary has been well-proven over the years. And, of course, family members and friends all over the world want to know what is happening here in Maine.

So what has happened around here, other than our daughter is now six weeks old and beginning to grab Mommy's hair and make "social smiles", all earth-shaking news in itself, at least to the proud and sleep-deprived parents?

Well, we sold three breed ewes to an island farm Saturday. The farmers came with a nice big livestock trailer. They were pleasant and sensible, and the photos on their webpage and FaceBook page show some pretty good husbandry, and so we feel that these sheep will go to good homes.

The island farmers seem surprised at the large size of our sheep, given that they also keep Romneys.

It isn't the Corriedale blood. Corriedales are no larger than Romneys. Both are multi-purpose breeds, and look so similar they can be hard to tell apart. But since we grain our sheep daily all year, they grow out to the full potential of the breed.

They may have a ram for us next year, which would be nice. Little Roo might be old enough by then to enjoy a trip to an island. All in all we were pretty pleased with the deal.

Then yesterday the three fat lambs went to the butchers. By the end of the week they'll be lamb chops. Aimee was asked to help with the trailer-loading chore. This is a job she has avoided every year, mostly after giving up on me in frustration when I've struggled to load pigs, but I know she also feels sorry for the poor doomed critters.

This time she was so shocked at how difficult it can be to load multiple animals into our small home-made livestock trailer, she immediately acquiesced to our purchase of a "proper" one, much like the one the island farmers brought. This was a great day for me, because I've struggled for so many years. But the money we could set aside for farming has always been tight, and so we can't just spend it willy-nilly. I believed that if we could get by with a little home-made trailer, then we probably should.

A larger, purpose-built livestock trailer would transform my year, taking the two hardest jobs and making them easy. And the "new" (eleven years old) Nissan pick-em up truck will be able to draw such a trailer easily. One day, if we can find some more land around here, I'd like to have a proper piggery and more sheep, and so a bigger trailer would be needed.

Finally, Shaun the ram is also sold, the deposit in hand, and he will leave soon after he has completed his tupping rounds. He began yesterday and got off to a bad start. His notion was simply to run down the ewes when they wouldn't at first stand for him, a real "rough wooing." This of course will not work for him. He'll have to learn to be nicer. But he soon got tired, so this is the sort of behavior that is likely self-correcting.

All this sheep-selling leaves us with only seven ewes, of which five can and are being be bred to Shaun. (The remaining two are his sister and daughter, now seperated.) That's the fewest sheep we've had since our first sheep purchase all those years ago, and reflects our desire to have an easy winter, this first winter that we're a family of three.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sheep studies

The 2014 Captive Wildlife Care and Education first years came out to Womerlippi Acres yesterday, along with instructors Tom Aversa, Cheryl Frederick, and Meg Anderson, to learn all about sheep wrangling and sheep care. Watching from the sidelines and taking these pictures were baby Rhubarb and Aimee.

It was a fairly hectic day, but a good time was had by all, except possibly the sheep, who, however, are now all set for the winter, having had their hooves and dung tags trimmed, their FAMACHA® checks done, and their spiffy new USDA scrapie prevention ID tags attached.

All this made for a fast-moving day of college-level instruction and praxis in animal care.

I've written elsewhere in the blog about how important a set of lessons this is for these young students. Go check out the older pages for those ideas, here and here and here.

Here are the photos Aimee took:

First up, here's a fat Englishman telling Americans how to wrangle a sheep.


Learning the safety hold and how to trim the hooves


 A slightly insecure lamb. Need to get that lamb-butt on the ground.

Meg shows them how to trim.

 Not the textbook safety hold, but this was a well-behaved lamb.

 That one would make a nice Corriedale show lamb.

It's hard work. A lot of bending and grasping.

Meg has it all under control.

This one got away, and was only recaught after she went through the swampy puddle next to the compost heap. One student said that she nearly lost her cookies, the poor lambie was so gross after that. But that was in some ways what the instructors wanted out of the day -- all romantic notions of the world of animal care evaporated in one swell foop.

A very tolerant lamb.

This is the kind of concentration we want to see.

The full-on sheep service team in action.

 Getting down to details.


A brief moment of pain and then it's all over.

And again. All fourteen sheep needed this procedure.

A full-court press on a ram lamb.

Tom gives a lesson.

The safety hold is extremely effective. One relatively small person can hold a very large sheep in this position long enough to get a lot of work done.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Birth announcement.

Here is little Edana Quinn "Rhubarb" Womersley, aged less than one hour old, the photo taken in the recovery room of Operating Theatre # 1 at Waldo County General Hospital, Belfast, Maine, United States of America, around 4.00 pm on Sunday 31st August, 2014. The time of birth was 3.15pm. 

Little "Roo" was 8 lbs, 2 ounces, 20.5 inches long, and is already a very well-behaved baby.


This is a special baby to me of course, since I'm her daddy, but she's also a special baby because she's a survivor, on both her father's and mother's sides, of two particular families that have not recently been adequately fecund for their genes to proliferate, yet who, in my humble opinion, did far more than their fair share to protect British and American liberty and justice in the 20th and 21st centuries.

(I'm doing a lot of driving back and forth from the hospital and so I have time to think on who she is and why she very nearly didn't make it. It's a miracle of sorts.)

She is the daughter of Dr. Aimee Lynn Phillippi, who herself is the daughter of Richard "Dick" Phillippi, a Vietnam veteran who loves his family deeply and no doubt will love his grand-daughter just as much, but who has chronic lymphocytic leukemia as a result of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. Her grandmother on her mom's side is Judy Phillippi, who was one of six brothers and sisters, but this is Judy's only precious granddaughter. Her great grandmother Miriam Summy is still alive, although ailing. She is by all accounts pleased as Punch and has told everyone in the retirement home. She had better live for a bit yet because she has stories to tell Roo, stories about farming and preaching and about being part of the Church of the Brethren, an important German-American Peace Church community. Miriam has written a book with all these stories, a copy of which will one day belong to little Roo.

Her father, writing this, is Dr. Michael William "Mick" Womersley, himself a six years veteran of the Royal Air Force, especially the RAF Mountain Rescue Service, of whom more than a dozen veterans have already sent their best wishes. She will one day meet some of them, and will always know that any of them will do just about anything for her if she ever had to ask.

She is the grand-daughter of Mary Jean (Watson) Womersley and Gordon Womersley, chocolate makers of Sheffield, England. Both died of Alzheimer's disease a couple of years ago, so neither lived quite long enough to see her, something her father will regret as long as he lives, but that couldn't be helped, mostly because of his own military service and chosen career, which meant that he would marry and father a child only very late in life, at 42 and 52 years' old, respectively.

There are three blood aunts and uncles, uncle Matthew and aunt Erin Phillippi and aunt Carol Womersley, as well as auntie Dee, a proper "Sheffield auntie", not a blood relative, but a real friend in need, who looked after her farm while she was busy being born. And there are quite a few great aunts and great uncles, especially great uncle Stanley Womersley and great aunt Barbara (Womersley) Laxton, the son and daughter of the Kinder Trespass veteran George William Womersley, and the brother of Hexam Abbey musician Ronald Womersley.

Her paternal grandfather Gordon was bombed out and evacuated during the Sheffield blitz in WWII. He served in the British military during the Korean War period, but was luckily not sent overseas. Her paternal grandmother also survived the Sheffield blitz. Grandma Jean did so almost as a single child, since her father, this little mite's paternal great grandfather, was serving in the British Army, first doing heavy rescue in London, then in D-Day preparations on Salisbury Plain. These were long years, but they came after Arthur's earlier three years WWI service in the trenches, as well as several more years Army service just to have a job during the Great Depression. Her paternal great grandfather was thus lucky to have survived WWI, and his wife Leticia (Jones) Watson, a Welsh farm girl from Pennal, near Machynlleth, only managed to have one child, another having died in childbirth during the emergency years. This meant, of course, that her grandma Jean and father Michael were lucky to ever live too. Her other paternal great grand-father was sent to Iraq, and was a Kinder Trespasser and amateur writer and artist, while her paternal great grandmother was a nurse for wounded WWI veterans.

There were also uncles and great uncles and various cousins in the RAF, and in the British Army. 

Grandma Jean's only living cousin Barrie Lockwood, himself an RAF veteran, survives and knows all these stories, and even has the pictures to prove it, pictures and stories that will one day belong to little Roo, since she's all that is left.


There are people all over the world who already know her and where she comes from and what her family has collectively managed to survive and do to get her to this point. She already has birthright citizenship of two of the greatest democracies on the planet, never mind the right of residence in any EU country.

And she has her very own farm to come home to soon, and live in while she grows and whenever she wants when she's grown up, and to inherit one day.

So she's already a lucky wee mite, isn't she.

Update, 9/2/2014 at 8pm. She's home! Wee Roo is in her pouch.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Killing time...

... waiting for Edana "Rhubarb" Quinn Womersley to arrive. Today we have sheep to tend and tomatoes to can. That should keep us busy enough.

Here, also to pass the time pleasantly, are some photos I was sent by an old friend this week.

This is a Norwegian mountain hut called the Hytte på Bandet, or the "hut on the saddle." We stayed there in 1984 while on an official UK military Joint Services Adventurous Training expedition called NORPED 1984, climbing the mountains all around. 

I'd lost my slides of this adventure after I loaned them to the expedition's organizers and they never returned them, but I was able to find my main climbing partner on the trip, former cadet David Balharry, through FaceBook, and he sent me some 35 mm slides to scan in. I'm pretty pleased to have them. 

This is the Hurrangane mountaiin range, somewhere high on the west ridge of Store Midtmaradalstind, looking north to Store Skagastølstind, AKA Storen for short, looking north and east.  

Store Skagastølstind is the main mountain we climbed, the second highest peak in Norway. It's called "Storen" or "the big one" for short. We climbed it using the ridge to the right, and descended via the face you see here, a series of scary abseils.

The rest of the slideshow is here on FaceBook.

And here's one I found in my den, my old passport picture from around the same era:

What a long face! I'm looking very sad because this was around the time of my demob. That was a tough time for me.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to can a big batch of peaches efficiently

Today was not a day I was scheduled to work, and Aimee had earlier been to the Belfast Cooperative to bring home two of Peter Baldwin's pre-ordered bushel boxes of peaches which were now ripe enough for me to can, so I got on with it.

Most people new to canning would be nervous about doing quite so many at once, and worried about how much time it would take, but if you want to be self reliant it really is better to put up good solid quantities of staple and storage foods. It's surprising how much people can eat. Think in bushels, not pounds and quarts.

Although I started out rusty and slow, I quickly remembered all the tricks to getting it done efficiently. I should think that by far the most efficient technique would be some kind of assembly line in a larger community kitchen, with several people working at once. There are about eight distinct steps, so eight people would be best, and they could probably do as many as thirty bushels in a day if they had everything on hand.

First, put a large saucepan or kettle on to boil the hot water needed to peel peaches. A three gallon soup pan with about two gallons of water in it would be perfect. Then, while that heats up, gather up your peaches, which have to be ripe but still firm, and your other stuff: clean canning jars, lids and bands, sugar, and citric acid. 

Two cups of sugar in six cups of water with a teaspoon and a half of citric acid makes a good light syrup. I'm told you can use grape juice instead of sugar but I never do. You have to use the citric acid (or lemon juice) to stop the peaches from turning brown.


By now your pan of plain water should be boiling. Drop as many peaches in there as will fit, leave them in until the skin discolors just slightly and goes just a bit wrinkly, about thirty seconds if the water is properly hot. Even discolored or bruised fruit like the one above can go in. You'll cut the bruised part off later.

Pull the peaches out and drop them in a large bowl next to a cutting board. Now comes the trick or "knack." Take one and cut it in half, rolling the knife around the stone. With the skin still on, take one half in each hand and twist gently, slipping your thumbs between the two halves to pry them apart if need be. If you haven't under- or overheated them, the fruit should fall into two clean, even halves with the stone in one of the two. Pick the stone out by working your thumb or fingers underneath it. In about one in four or five pieces of fruit the stone will be broken in two. It may even be discolored or moldy. As long as you can clean it all out, don't worry about it. Be sure to scoop out or cut away any mold or fragments of stone.

You can now turn your attention to the skin. It should slough off easily in one or two large pieces. If it doesn't, pop all the fruit back in the hot water for a few seconds more until it does. Experiment using trial and error to find out the exact right amount of time it takes to slough the skin off each peach nicely. With the peaches we usually get, I notice that red skinned peaches peel more easily than yellow, but I suppose it depends on the variety of peach you have.

The whole process of skinning and stoning takes only a few seconds if you do it this way, stoning first, then skinning. The two halves will be much easier to grab with the skin on than off. There's also something about the twisting motion that is required to separate the two halves that also works most of the skin loose more easily than if you tackle a whole peach. Make sure you get all the skin off.

As you get each peach half clean and skinned, drop it in a clean canning jar. If your peaches are large, you will need wide mouth jars for peach halves, while peach quarters and slices can go in regular jars. I always use quart jars. Smaller ones just don't work that well. Peaches are too bulky.

Just stone, skin and pack a few jars at a time, unless you have help. Don't get ahead of the job. You don't want to leave too many open jars with uncovered peaches lying around for too long. Today I did batches of four jars at a time, just enough to use up a batch of syrup.

Add your sugar syrup/citric acid mixture to bring the total of peaches and syrup up to within one half-inch of the top of each jar. Wipe the top clean with a bit of kitchen towel so there is nothing to prevent the vacuum seal from forming and fit a clean lid and ring band.

Some books on home canning tell you to sterilize lids and ring bands, but I can't see how this makes the slightest bit of difference when the next thing that happens is that they are going to be in 212 degree F water for half an hour. Likewise, I don't sterilize jars. I just make sure they are washed thoroughly in hot water and rinsed.

Our water bath canner takes nine quart jars at a time. The water needs to be deep enough to cover the top of each jar, and it needs to be at a rolling boil before you put the jars in. You'll need to experiment with your stove to find the right gas or electric setting to maintain the boil without wasting energy. With our stove, which runs on propane, it takes the two middle-sized burners going full blast to heat the canner up to boiling, but once it is boiling, you can turn them both down a little. Once the jars are all in, wait for the water to start boiling again, which will take a while, then time the boil for thirty minutes.

These tips assume you are within a thousand feet of altitude above sea level. If you're higher up than this, consult the official USDA guide, which is available online these days. In fact, you should read the general sections of this guide, which is the authoritative manual, before you do anything.

Once the thirty minutes are up, pull the first nine jars out with tongs, or using the rack that came with the water bath canner, set them aside to cool, and replace them with nine more. Wait for this new batch to begin to boil, then time them for thirty minutes after that. After the time is up, let all the cans cool completely, then check the lids for a seal. The little domed top of each lid should be sucked down into the canning jar by a vacuum inside. It should feel taught if you tap it with a finger, not elastic or springy. As you set them aside too cool, space them widely apart so the air can circulate. Don't set them right next to one another, or they'll take much longer to cool down.

If the cans are sealed you can the remove the ring band, which is not required for storage once everything is sealed, and wash any sticky canning water off carefully, making sure not to disturb the lid, then put them in a dark cupboard or on a dark shelf. Any that are not sealed will keep for quite a while in the fridge.

If you go traveling with cans, say to deliver some to relatives or friends, you might like to put ring bands back on to protect the seal. But on the shelf at home they're not needed.

If you happen to have a lonely old ram, or a pig, they like to eat bruised peaches and peach fragments, while pigs and chickens love peach skins. Notice the peach juice dripping from Shawn's mouth, the silly old ram.

Here's the kitchen in full production. When we rebuilt this old farmhouse, we deliberately made a large kitchen so we could do this kind of thing more easily.

Here's about two thirds of what we made today. Summer sunshine in a jar to brighten up your winter!

Back to work!

Yesterday was my first day back at work after our summer break. It was mostly a day of catching up with colleagues new and old, and meetings. There was the fleeting pleasure of a brief trip to look at a field site, that involved about a quarter-mile walk, but the rest of the day was spent indoors and talking to people.

This is of course a major change of scenery after a long summer of being outdoors, farming, building and fixing cars and equipment, a time in which the main person I spoke to was Aimee. We won't count talking to the sheep or dogs, both of which I do most days.

I'm not bad enough yet to talk to my plants, although I imagine I will get there one day.

It was a surprising pleasure to talk to people. It always is. But I notice that it is very tiring to do it all day long. You get used to it, of course, and so by this time next week it won't be nearly as tiring. But in general, I can pull weeds or saw wood all day long and not be as worn out mentally as I get from this kind of professional conversation.

Aimee is now in her last week of pregnancy before the due date, which is next Sunday (24th August). She has entered a fairly stable daily pattern of eating, sleeping, taking little walks with the dogs, and -- for recreation and since she no longer likes to shop or travel -- she has decided to cook. A lot. She's making us a lot of food.

This last is surprising. I do most of the cooking around here. But Aimee is a good cook, probably a better cook than me much of the time. In the last day or two we've had enchiladas, pie, bread, whoopie pies (a Maine favorite and the Official State Treat), and she's also made a big batch of kraut.

She gets up late, maybe 8 or 9 am, gets online, checks her email and FaceBook, and then cooks. She cooks a little, then naps a little, then cooks a little. She may do a little light house cleaning too.

So this is a pretty easy way for a husband to get through the last week of a wife's pregnancy. I know how lucky I am. I've heard all the horror stories, all the stuff about how antsy women get when their time comes, how they can drive their husbands crazy.

Me, it isn't fair, I know, but I'm hoping for cheesecake.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

No power, no heat. (But it doesn't matter.)

The same fast, heavy rainstorm that caused flash floods on Long Island has knocked our power out. Not great timing, considering that my wife is pregnant and due any time now, and that I have an elderly relative that has had a medical emergency and taken to hospital in Great Britain, meaning I need to be able to get email and phone.

No worries, though. Many years ago I made provision for this kind of thing by investing in a 3,250 watt propane emergency generator. I went out this morning and started the generator and hooked it up safely, and we have power to most of the house.

It's a pull-start genny, and so harder to get going than our old electrical start, but it makes two pole 110/220v power, and so we can run anything we want to run in the house, even the dryer, welder or automotive lift, all of which are 220v.

Call me nuts, or a "prepper", but I can imagine needing to use the welder or auto lift one day, if I need to weld something on a car, truck or tractor and the power has been out for days.

We're unlikely to use the dryer. We'd normally use the laundry line or clothes horse and the heat from the woodstove.

Unfortunately, we can't use the woodstove right now. That's because I took the chimney apart yesterday. Luckily, it isn't yet cold this fall.

(That's right: it's fall already in Maine. Our statistical first frost is August 27th, and there are already some red maple leaves on some of our trees.)

I already had it on my list to sweep and inspect the chimney, a regular home safety chore prior to winter. I also had a good 48 inch chimney section, salvaged from the garage (after I sold the old wood furnace we no longer needed now the multi-year house insulation project was complete), with which I might make repairs, if need be.

Long ago this chimney was compromised by a poor installation job, thanks to an unethical local contractor, and an unresponsive and irresponsible manufacturing company. You can read the full sad story here. The damage was only to the outer layers of insulation and metal cladding. The inner liner of stainless steel was fine.

I solved the problem by wrapping the compromised chimney sections in two extra layers of galvanized steel. But every year, I inspect the compromised sections to make sure they are still usable.

This is what I found this year:

There are three compromised 48 inch sections like this. You can see that the connecting collar has become separated from the shaft of the chimney section, exposing the insulation.

Obviously this chimney is now completely unserviceable. I doubt it was ever dangerous, though, thanks to my earlier, ad hoc repair. The second and third additional layers of steel would have held the whole thing together and prevented dangerous heat reaching the fabric of the house.

But I think it's time for a new chimney. Especially with a baby on the way, we need a safe woodstove.

Accordingly I sourced chimney parts from a different manufacturer that would fit what is left of our original chimney. It took me a bit of luck and driving around but I found sufficient sections of suitable chimney to complete the repair in Bangor yesterday. Today I'll fit them carefully. 

Then I may package the broken chimney and send it UPS with a note to the original manufacturer. They've been bought out by a new company and may now be more responsible. Aimee is good at notes like that, and has often won refunds when I'd given up. Maybe she'd like to write it. We could even circulate the note and pictures on FaceBook. That might spur them into providing satisfaction.

In other news, Aimee made red cabbage kraut. Here's the kraut pot, with the weights that hold down the solid cabbage and keep it under the brine:

Five red cabbages made around two gallons of kraut. Tasty, and healthy too.