This image of snow in our back yarn first appeared here in December 2008. Today, in January 2021, there is not nearly as much snow on the ground. The birch tree is much larger and the garden shed is much more in need of paint. So in some ways things have not changed and yet they still have!
The Ewe Turn Blog began its life 12 years ago and has been plugging along at differing paces ever since. Our website has been around for a lot longer. It too has evolved with time. In all the time that we have shared a bit of our lives with the world, I never really imaged that I would be writing about our current situation. Dramatic changes have occurred in our operation over the last year, due to the evolving corona virus pandemic. Early last year we made some decisions about the farm which we hoped would be temporary. Now after a year of an altered life we have made some difficult and major permanent decisions regarding our lives and the various operations of Whitefish Bay Farm. As of 2021 the Bed & Breakfast is permanently closed. The Gallery is also permanently closed, but it will try to carry on in an altered online form. On the other side we are not closing down our farming operation. The sheep are still with us and will continue to produce quality wool for as long as they are healthy and as long as we are strong enough to support them.
Those of you who have stayed with us over the last couple of years and those of you who have visited the gallery in that time, may have heard us talking about a gradual effort to cut back on our hours in the B&B and in the Gallery. In a sense we were slowly, yet steadily, cutting back on our operation with an ultimate goal of some sort of “retirement” in the distant future. The current health crisis served to rapidly modify our day to day perspective. It created an environment which made it nearly impossible for two older individuals to be able to safely operate a B&B and still be able to offer an enjoyable and safe experience for our guests and a feeling of satisfaction on our part. The same conditions also damaged whatever was an enjoyable gallery experience for all concerned, customers and fiber artists.
Should you look at our website, you will notice that these changes are reflected there. We are leaving portions of our B&B and Gallery pages intact, but only as a historical or nostalgic reminder of what was at one time for us a joyous operation. If you look at our Mercantile Page you will see that we have begun the process of attempting to sell online much of what we produce from our fiber. Currently those offerings are limited. Gretchen did not have sufficiently good fall weather to achieve any significant amount of dyeing. Hopefully with warmer weather to come this spring that effort will be corrected. Along the same vein, both of us cut back on our normal winter time weaving projects, until we could sort out what direction our lives were headed. Now we need to overcome the inertia to get projects coming off our looms again. We will be shearing the flock in mid-March (assuming that all of our shearing crew stays healthy!). If we succeed with shearing, we will again be offering fleeces for sale in mid-April.
Gretchen and I originally dreamed of this operation in the 1970’s. It became tangible with the purchase of the Farm in 1983 and the immediate opening of the Gallery the next spring. It was followed by renovations and modernizations which permitted us to start our flock in 1990 and to open the B&B in 1991. We do not plan to abandon this existence anytime soon.
Over these last 30 years we have had the humbling pleasure to get to know so many truly wonderful people. At one time they were “just guests”, now many of you are our truly dear friends. We miss you! We truly hope that sometime in the future, life will again let us meet with you face to face. The prospect of sharing conversation and cups of coffee on the front porch almost seems like an exotic dream. I can feel reasonably sure that the sheep will also look forward to schmoozing with someone other that the two of us. Take good care!
It is difficult to believe that we are nearly finished with fall. Despite the difficulties and stress that the Corona virus has dished out to us, life at Whitefish Bay Farm has rattled along rapidly and as peacefully as we could hope. We have greatly missed the interaction that we would normally have experienced with our B&B guests and Gallery customers, not to mention family and friends. Like us, our sheep are showing their advancing age, but, also like us, they are still doing pretty well. We lost one of our ewes, Yummy, to health complications partially age related, but otherwise the rest of the flock made it through the grazing season and have now moved into the barn to spend the winter in relative comfort.
In September we grazed pasture #3 for the last time this year. That pasture is probably my special favorite. It is located in the extreme southeast corner of the farm. It is the most isolated and quiet pasture that the sheep graze. The soil is especially rich and that has benefited our efforts to grow a very good mix of grasses and legumes. I am especially happy with the success we have had in establishing a vibrant growth of trefoil. Because of its location, it is also the most peaceful pasture that we graze. It is always special, setting up fencing, knowing that I will often encounter wildlife each morning. It also is a very beautiful place. This image is from late September, the second to last day for the sheep to graze #3 this year. Much of the pasture is surround by trees, both deciduous and conifer. In the fall it is usually a great collection of fall colors among the trees. When this picture was taken one of the few beech trees growing on the farm had already started to show some great coppery orange.
Just under 3 weeks later most of the deciduous trees were displaying wonderful fall colors. By then the flock had moved on to another pasture. This is what the west end of #3 looked like in early October. The trees with color include beech, birch, maple and ash. Sadly, in this year of health crisis, this picture will probably never be replicated. The damage being done to our native ash trees by the invasive emerald ash beetle was finally apparent in this pasture. Most of the burgundy and yellow colors in this scene are the contribution of the ash trees. This seems to be the last area of the farm to experience the damage and death caused by this alien insect. There are just a couple of trees which can be seen which have already lost their leaves and are dying. Next year this will be quite a different scene. I suspect that most, if not all, of the mature ash will be dead by then. We have already lost nearly all of the ash in the western 20 acres of the farm, an area which is predominately ash and cedar. That woodland is now full of dead ash skeletons. I will especially miss this view next spring. It is ironic that the the year 2020 has produced so much trauma and so many different tragic deaths, both human and otherwise.
After finishing with pasture #3, the flock moved to the pasture nearest the house, the pasture we know as “the orchard”. By this time, mid-October, the trees were displaying especially brilliant fall colors. Two weeks into October and our maple grove was glowing!The presence of the flock, close to home, was especially comforting. It is always nice to “share breakfast” with them when they are so close. Ten days after this image, we experienced a rapid decrease in temperatures. Strong winds removed much of the fall leaves from the trees for a drastic change in appearance. With a run of days when the temperatures dropped to 20°F (-7°C), the waterlines to the pastures froze up. With no warmer temperatures in sight, we decided to call a halt to the grazing season for 2020. October 20th was the flock’s last day on pasture. Ironically things warmed up again in mid-November. But by then I had managed to get the pasture pipes shut off and drained. In addition all of the portable fence equipment was collected and stored away for the winter. We could sense that the flock was probably just as happy to remain in the barn. Weather conditions inside were more pleasant and the quality of the grazing forage outside was much less after the hard frost. Now it is up to the two of us to get into a winter routine, which is going to be decidedly different than we have experienced before.
This summer has been very different than all of the previous summers since we came to the farm nearly 37 years ago. Perhaps it could also be described as a very strange environment. With the B&B and the Gallery closed for the year, life has been much quieter for the two of us. Since late February we have spent almost all of our time at home at the farm. In this time we have only been out of Door County three times. One day was spent in a virtually non-stop drive to Mt. Horeb and back, the purpose of which was to deliver this year’s wool clip to Blackberry Ridge Woolen Mill for processing into yarn. A second trip took us to Luxemburg Wisconsin to fetch a tractor part which we picked up outside the door of the quarantining Luxemburg Motors. The last and most recent trip was to Green Bay for medical tests. To date we both have remained safe from the Covid-19 virus. We both have read a lot more books than we have in years, spent some time on fiber projects and otherwise have cared for the farm, the sheep and our gardens.
Gretchen has been able to devote much more time to her flower gardens. As a result, they are quite lovely and we both get a lot of pleasure just looking at them, while the hummingbirds and butterflies seemed to appreciate her efforts. The only missing piece to the flower garden picture is the space which was once occupied by the cedar tree clump in front of the studio kitchen. Last December the trees were brought down by a heavy wet snow. This spring and summer we managed to remove the remains of the trees, along with the plants that grew beneath them. With any luck within a couple of weeks we will have a new Magnolia tree planted along with new under-story plantings. It will be nice to not look out onto a patch of bare ground!
The vegetable garden got a slow start, largely due to the wet, cool spring. Once everything was seeded or planted the garden has thrived. With the exception of a poor showing from our onions, everything is lush and still growing. Most of the harvesting is a bit behind schedule, but the plants have made up for the delay with among others an abundance of tomatoes, squash, beans, melons, cucumbers and (hopefully) artichokes. Much of the vegetable garden was planned with the notion that it would provide food for the B&B. Had we known that we would not be feeding B&B guests, the plantings would have been more limited in number.
My chores as a shepherd have been altered by many factors. The flock is, (like me), aging and we all move at a slower pace. Lots of excessive warm and humid summer weather also limits our speed. There are fewer sheep in the flock than there were a year ago at this time, with the result that they do not graze as much per day as they did when the numbers were higher. It has taken me a time to properly adjust my daily grazing areas for the flock. At times it means that the sheep are not properly keeping up with the growth in their paddocks. By the time we finished grazing the “Orchard” pasture the forage was nearly over the heads of the sheep when they started each day. This was the early morning scene as we were about finished with that pasture close to the end of July. By the end of the day the “good green stuff” (which is hidden from view) was consumed. Once this entire pasture was completely grazed I needed to come into it with a mower to chew up the long, dried grass. Within a week or two the pasture is as green and lush as the pasture in the distant upper right of the image.
Besides being slower both out to pasture in the morning and coming back in in the evening I seemed to have assumed more of a role as leader. In years past I could not keep up with the group, coming and going. Now they seem to need some guidance from me, both coming and going. It makes for a much more dignified parade! To complicate matters earlier this summer I found that I had to make sure we did not encounter any unexpected guests coming or going. For a period of about two weeks I had to make sure I was at the head of the parade in order to “herd” a baby skunk which like to take advantage of the fact that the sheep created pathways across the pastures. Here is my little buddy in the middle of the path. Luckily, the little guy was quite cooperative and just trotted along ahead of me, with some verbal encouragement on my part. It did not seem too upset and as a result neither the sheep nor I had to deal with any odors. Eventually, after a couple of weeks, my buddy moved on to a different area that we were not passing through. I actually missed our encounters. In many ways not having him to talk to each morning and sometimes in the afternoon is a lot like the flock not having B&B guests coming to visit them regularly. I have no way to document it but I have the feeling that most of the flock misses the morning visits.
As we have now done for a couple of years, we made all of our winter hay using large round bales. With the changing climate it is now almost impossible to get a long enough “window” of dry weather to cut, rake, dry and bale our hay using a small baler. In addition it is a physical challenge for the two of us to move those small bales and get them loaded into the barn. We had the cutting and baling done by a young neighbor with the equipment necessary to get it finished quickly. I get the bales moved off the field using spears on the front of one of our tractors. They are stored under tarps on one of the smaller fields near the barn. Here is this year’s harvest all put to bed ready for winter. It is always a good feeling having that task completed and knowing that we should have enough winter feed for the flock.
Now that it is late August our flock of Barn Swallows has nearly fledged their second brood of chicks. We did not seem to have quite as many swallows nesting in the barn this years as last year, but never the less their numbers were still significant. This morning I counted nearly 40 perched on the roof of the barn, being warmed by the early sun light. In addition there were others in the air above them or flying into the barn to feed their last young in the nest. This crowd is now actually bigger than when the picture was taken and they are out flying with the rest. I would not be surprised when very soon the entire flock suddenly disappears for the year. It is shortly time for them to head south. They will be missed.
May was both a difficult and comforting month for everyone at the farm. As we entered May it was often cold and wet. The pastures were slow to green up and grow with the result that it was not possible to get the flock out onto pasture as soon as we would have liked. Eventually it did warm up and the pastures exploded in growth. The spring wildflowers were late in blooming, but when they started it was a dramatically beautiful display. The Marsh Marigolds in our Cedar/Ash wetlands were spectacular.
Finally with the last week of May, we were able to get the flock started on pasture. As always, the first day out is very special for the sheep and for us. The first day out began in heavy fog, but that did not deter the ewes from sampling their first green grass of the year. The only thing missing from this special day was the presence of new lambs. They are still deeply missed. Nonetheless the ewes were happy. Velveeta seemed a bit serious about everything, but that is her way. On the other hand Cha Cha was definitely smiling. And Calamity Jane seemed to be a bit more reserved.It was also reassuring to have a number of regular May events occur, seemingly as if perfectly timed. The first Monarch butterflies arrived at the farm in the last week of May. It was a pleasure to look up from working in the vegetable garden to see the first arrival fly by.
As also seems to be the predictable case, the next morning we spotted a newborn White-tailed fawn disappearing into deep grass in the pasture outside our breakfast window. I regret not documenting the frequency of the event, but it now seems like many, many years that we have always had fawns born within the confines of what we call the Orchard Pasture. I am a firm believer that the mother finds some degree of security within that pasture and its close proximity to the house. It would not surprise me to learn that we have had at least 3 or 4 generations of White-tailed Deer born in this same location.
On the less than positive side of life in May, Gretchen and I made the difficult decision that we would not open our B&B nor our Gallery in 2020. The uncertainty of our safety in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is too great. In addition, the suggested guidelines for operating a B&B and/or a gallery make it almost impossible for the two of us to realistically operate either business at present. There are just too many constraints and unknowns to make the effort worthwhile and enjoyable. As we get into this coming winter we will re-think our position and decide whether we open either business in 2021. On a more positive note, we are thinking of offering more of our fiber productions online, including our finished woven productions and naturally dyed yarns. If we figure out a plan we will announce in here in the Ewe Turn blog.