Shearing Day

I’m admitedly almost two weeks late in getting this post up, but I did want to share some photos and stories from our spring sheep shearing. We have a woman who drives up from Indiana to do the job; she’s an expert with fine wool breeds like our Icelandics, and watching her work has convinced us this is something we want to leave to an expert.
First, we got the entire adult flock (nine ewes and two rams) tied up with halters:
Here they are, looking in from outside:

Lisa then began shearing the ewes. Note the lambs examing Mom’s huge udder and wondering what’s going on:
Most of the lambs decided to hang out together until all the excitement was over.
Dilemma, the big breeding ram, had a magnificent set of horns. Unfortunately, they were badly pressing against his face and would’ve crushed his skull had we let him keep them. And note how badly his vision was compromised by them:
So, after getting sheared …
We tied him with two halters, and anchored them to a pair of eye rings mounted on the barn. It was unfortunately the only way to hold him still. We then used a wire PVC cutter to saw through his horns one at a time. The friction of the wire helped cauterize the blood flow as it went through, but he still bled quite a bit. Scooter the border collie enjoyed lapping up the blood. No doubt that’s a predator control instinct that got bred into him 500 years ago.
By the time we finished, and bandaged him up with gauze and duct tape, Dilemma was one very unhappy sheep (today, he’s looking much better).
Adding to the indignity, the yearling ram immediately challenged his position. Dilemma, tired as he was from struggling, did put the yearling ram back in his place.
The big question was…what do we do with the horns? They were too nice to throw away, but they were of no use to us.
I put the word out on Facebook, and within days heard back from an old junior high school friend in Seattle. He’s a knife enthusiast, and had put the word out on those message boards. He’d heard from someone in Alabama who was looking for ram horn to use for making knife handles. I got in contact with that person, to discuss a transaction. I’d never sold horns before, and he’d never bought them…so neither of us was sure what the market price should be. I mostly just wanted these things to be put to good use, so I told him $25 would cover the cost of shipping and cutting them off the ram. He thought that was fair, and immediately sent the money via PayPal. And I got them in the mail that afternoon.
Which I think is an illustration of online social networking at its best. People of similiar interests can now find each other and connect, no matter where they might be physically located. We’re brought together by our interests, rather than the accidents of our geography. This is not to dismiss the importance of local communities, but rather to emphasize the positives of virtual communities.
Twenty years ago, I probably would’ve tossed these horns in the trash. But with the power of social networking, Dilemma’s horns will someday grace the handle of a nice knife.

Worth It?

Can you make money at farming? Perhaps a better question is: Is it worth your time? But in answering that question, you need to give some thought to all the various meanings of the word “worth.”

Let me give one example that’s on my mind from yesterday. As I’ve posted before, when we lived in Illinois we developed a nice clientelle that was interested in duck eggs. They’re hard to find, rarely appear in stores, and those who really want them are willing to pay a premium. We charge $5/dozen.

Since we’re talking “worth it,” let’s first look at some basic facts. Last spring, we ordered a straight run of 30 Cayuga ducklings. They cost us $93. We lost a couple of them to accidents and random fatalities, and I butchered about ten of the males. Right now, I think we have 18 or so Cayugas in the barn. A few of them are males that escaped my knife last fall. Figure we have 15 females. (I should mention that Cayugas are not an optimal laying duck, but Mrs. Yeoman Farmer prefers their eggs, and the males provide a bigger carcass than the specialized laying breeds like Khaki Campbells.)

We got a few eggs from precocious layers last fall, but not enough to pack up and take to market. They began laying in notable numbers in January. At their peak, were were getting over a dozen eggs a day from the flock. That’s tapered off in the last week or so, and we’re now getting 6-8 eggs per day.

Yesterday, I took a load of 27 dozen eggs to Chicago with me. We have a Filipino customer who brines them in big buckets of salt water and sells the finished product in their ethnic community. In my previous trips this year, I’ve sold another 15 dozen to him and various other customers.

So, right now, we’ve pocketed $210. Not bad, and the ducks aren’t done laying. But consider all the expenses I haven’t listed (and can’t easily compute): heat lamps to brood the ducklings, high protein feed for their first few months of life, all the layer ration they’ve eaten since, electricity to run the extra fridge, etc. There’s also the matter of transportation costs, getting the eggs to the customer. I mostly get around this by finding a professional reason to go to Chicago, and take the eggs with me. Still, this is not a huge financial return by any standard. And there is also the matter of time. Not only gathering the eggs, but also washing them. Packing them. Driving to the place(s) where we can meet the customer.

Now, consider the other rewards. First, we had ten delicious duck dinners; one Cayuga drake is just enough to feed our family (By contrast, Khaki Campbell drakes are so small, we’d need two for a meal). How often have you eaten duck in the last year? In your lifetime? Second, we had a good supply of surplus eggs to eat; we eat mostly chicken eggs, but there were plenty of cracked and otherwise unsalable duck eggs for us to eat.

The remaining rewards are more intangible: First, at least three people who otherwise cannot have eggs in their diet because of allergies…got to eat eggs again. It’s difficult to describe the joy on a person’s face, when they thank you for even having your product available. As parents of children with lots of food allergies, this is something we understand very well. Second, I’ve gotten to connect with our Filipino customer again, and experience his happiness at again being able to supply a product. He does these eggs as a side business, and if we don’t have eggs…he doesn’t have eggs. And his customers usually cannot find them elsewhere.

We’ve known this person and his wife for many years now, and have come to enjoy seeing them and talking with them. In fact, to be honest, a call from him last winter was what gave me the nudge to again expand our duck flock. I wouldn’t be keeping more than a handful of females if (1) I didn’t have him as a customer who’ll take every egg and (2) he wasn’t so appreciative and personally connected to us. If it was a question of cold hard numbers, and loading our eggs on a truck to go to a factory, I’d almost certainly have said “forget it,” even if the money was the same.

So I guess at the end of the day, when you’re trying to decide if supplying a farm product is “worth it,” it’s as important to consider the intangible rewards alongside the tangible ones. For $210, given what we’ve spent and the time it’s taken, I’d be hard pressed to say these ducks have been worth the trouble. But for $210, plus the relationships with our customers?

Yes. Absolutely.

Real Face

A quick post with a strong recommendation: the History Channel has put together an excellent documentary program called “The Real Face of Jesus.” It’s a two hour scientific investigation of the Shroud of Turin, led by an American research team.

These researchers are graphic experts, and their goal was fascinating: decode the 3D data embedded in the 2D image of the Shroud, and use their 3D imaging software to create a true-to-life image of the Man the Shroud wrapped. We’ve never seen anything like this. The end result is a stunning likeness.

They had to address all kinds of issues in being able to lift the 3D data, which are all described in the program. Our family learned much more about the Shroud (and the science of imaging) than we’d ever thought possible. Although the History Channel producers don’t officially take a side as to the authenticity of the Shroud (which the same position of the Catholic Church, BTW), the evidence presented is overwhelming. Also, as an aside, the level of detail as to the wounds Christ suffered in the Passion is remarkable in itself. Lots of food for meditation on Good Friday.

My only criticism is a few sections where they talk about the Gnostics in the early Church, and their conceptions of reality. These passages are totally unnecessary, and paint the gnostics as way-ahead-of-their-time-intellectual-victims-of-know-nothing persecution. Seemed almost lifted from unused portions of The DaVinci Code.

But if you can put up with some of that nonsense, I highly recommend this program. It’s slated to air again tomorrow (Holy Saturday) at 8pm, Midnight on Easter Sunday morning, and next Saturday (April 10th) at 5pm.  All times Eastern. Check your local listings, and set your DVR. It’s worth it.

A very blessed Good Friday to all. Hope everyone has a good end to Lent, and a blessed Easter.