What are They Up to Now:  Road-trip Adventure

Whatever the neighbors might have thought when we first moved up full-time to the farm in 2000, we weren’t going to be “normal” farmers. From heritage New Zealand Kunekune pigs to aquaponics, portable hen houses built on hay wagons to milking sheep, we kept folks guessing what the next project might be. I remember calling our contractor once, saying “I’ve got an interesting project, Jon.” He laughed knowingly from the other end of the line, “Of course you do.”
But when we started telling folks that we weren’t lambing this spring (the first time in 18 years), we were met with more looks of horror than curiosity. Yes, sorry, you’ll have to wait for the annual launch of the live lamb cam in the barn until October because we’re switching things around. Instead of breeding in the fall to lamb in spring, we’re breeding in the spring to lamb this fall.
Yes, on first look it does sound odd. This is certainly not what the deer would want to do. But the deer don’t have a nice cozy barn and a stockpile of hay from a benevolent caretaker. And there are several reasons for us to try a fall lambing this year: outwit the life cycles of pasture parasites that are hardest on young lambs, balance the workload on the farm, and milk primarily in the winter when it’s cheesemaking season.
Gelato can be made with frozen milk, and we have plenty stockpiled from last year, which gives us the necessary buffer for the experiment. But cheese is best made with fresh milk. Summertime (as you know if you’ve had a chance to visit Farmstead during that season) is far too busy for taking two or three days a week to focus just on cheese. Often, we get stretched so thin that Kara couldn’t get to milking until 11:00 at night. Off-season milking wouldn’t be competing with such a demanding workload.
Additionally, we have some of the breeds of sheep in our mix that are known for successful fall lambing. The fall-back plan? If the ewe’s don’t “take,” there is still enough time to breed in the fall for a traditional spring lambing. But with the late winter we experienced in the Northwoods this year, I can say that we were all quite glad to not be lambing in March and April! Imagine how many of those little ones would have ended up in the house needing special care from the cold.
But lambing or no lambing, the wooly coats had to come off, and Kara and I had stuffed the packed-full drum liner bags into the back of the old farm truck. When I ordered the bags from U-Line, I wasn’t aware that they were clear plastic, so it was quite apparent from the back hatch window that it was a veritable truckload of wool—all 600-odd pounds of it.
Usually I box up the wool and ship it to the mill, but with 15 extra sheep and a couple of months extra wool growth, the volume was prohibitively huge. I could just imagine calling the Speedee pickup service and explaining that they would have to come with the truck completely empty! So, instead, we were planning a personal delivery to the mill in LaFarge.
It was 8:15, after chores and breakfast, when Kara and I headed off down the still-squishy lane. The ground was brown, the trees barren and brown, the sky a hazy gray with low-bellied clouds that were sometimes pretending to be fog. Only the muted, beleaguered greens of the pines punctuated the scene as we headed south.
But as we traveled on, hitting green lawns just north of Black River Falls, the sun came out in patches, adding a little gold and blue to the scene. It was like driving out of a painting of depression and into technicolor. Oh how nice it was to see real signs of spring! An elderly lady inspecting her swelling patch of daffodils. A little boy pushing around the yard on a red toy car.
Then we stopped for fuel at a Kwik Trip in Sparta, which is when I realized that I hadn’t brought any kind of marker to write our name on the wool bags. So I ducked inside and waited in line to set my purchase on the well-worn glass counter.
The 40-something checkout lady with graying blond hair looked right up at me pointedly, and in a not-so-soft voice demanded, “Who’s your mom?!”
I took a breath, surprised. “My mom?” It seemed like the oddest thing to get asked at a checkout counter far from home when you’re 30-something.
“Yeah, who’s your mom!”
“Ann Berlage.”
“Oh…I thought you were going to say Shirley somebody.” She looked down, making busy with the barcode scanner.
“I’m from Hayward” I offered, which would hopefully indicate that Shirley somebody’s daughter didn’t have a hidden twin about.
“Oh, bumming around today then?”
I paused a moment, wondering when on earth might have been the last time that I was bumming around. I couldn’t think of one. “No, delivering wool to the mill in LaFarge.”
“Wool?” Her dusty blue eyes came back up. Surely by now she’d figured out we were the rusty red truck at pump 3. Not the Subaru or the fancy toy-hauler truck that must have just gone through the wash.
“Yeah, 600 pounds of raw wool.” Her strange look persisted, so I added “From sheep.”
“Oh, not for quilting then.”
At this point I wasn’t feeling like this conversation was progressing. “Um, no, and I need these markers to write our name on the bag, thanks,” paid the fee, and left. Behind me before the door closed, I heard a muttered “Wool…”
Now, I know we’ve been the talk of more than one water cooler moment, but the next leg of the journey literally turned heads. Bearded heads. As soon as Kara pulled out of the gas station, we found there was major road construction on a bridge ahead. Time for a detour. And what a detour! Right through the back roads of Amish country!
As our red truck clacked and putted along winding two-lanes, we passed fence menders and buggies and laundry-folders. Now, I’m sure they’ve seen country trucks before, but two young ladies and 600 pounds of raw wool, well…it appeared that we were the entertainment parade of the day.
But the wool got delivered on-time to the Ewetopia Fiber Mill, we filled up the truck with cow mats for our outdoor music stage, sand for the old tractor tire sandbox, solar yard lights, tarps (never have enough of those), a kiddie pool for the ducks, and new work shoes (might as well put the truck to use both ways) and headed home at last.
So what are they up to next, you wonder? You’ll have to hold on to find out! See you down on the farm sometime.