Farm update: June 14

Hello there, and how are things in your world? Here at Quiet Farm it’s hot, dry and smoky. The Pack Creek Fire, burning southeast of Moab, Utah – started by an unattended campfire! Thanks, thoughtful and responsible campers! – has filled our blue skies with thick smoke and turned our sunsets into a terrible neon orange ball of scorching flame. We’re forecast to spend the week ahead melting under triple-digit temperatures, and we plan to only be outside for the bare minimum of tasks between noon and six o’clock. This week will be all about survival – ensuring that we, and all of our plants and animals, have plenty of shade and fresh, cool water.

A few activities we’ve been up to recently on the farm:

Look at all those vitamins!

Our harvests lately have been greens, greens and more greens – no complaints, since we eat salad every day. The arugula, kale, spinach and mixed lettuces have all been crisp and delicious this season, but this week’s furnace-like temperatures will put an end to that abundance; as a rule, most lettuces and greens do not care for excessive heat and often turn unpalatably bitter. I’ve harvested just about every leaf out there; as usual, I leave a number of plants to intentionally go to seed for future plantings. I regularly replant salad greens underneath the tomatoes; by the time the greens are up, the tomato plant will shield the tender leaves from the scalding summer sun. We’re also harvesting garlic scapes (the squiggly things on the left side of the photo) to encourage the garlic plant to put all its energy into the underground bulb. Scapes are delicious in pesto, salad dressing or stir-fried. And we’re picking strawberries, too, which are spectacular and have never once made it all the way into the house except for this photo, after which they were promptly devoured.

Installation is the reverse of removal.

If you are the type of person who likes to tinker and solve complex puzzles and problems, we highly recommend that you buy a small farm then stock it with all sorts of vintage machinery and things. You will never be bored! The detail shot above is from a salvaged Honda pump. N is breaking it down, cleaning it and putting it back together in an attempt to add it to our quirky and bespoke irrigation system. We have our first water run scheduled for this week, and we are constantly working on improving our irrigation efficiency, especially since our “exceptional drought” is no longer the exception and is likely here to stay.

Such a cheerful splash of color in our arid desert landscape.

Most of our farm’s perennials, including lilacs and sweet peas, failed to bloom this year thanks to the lack of water. Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia), however, are a desert native and therefore totally unfazed by the climactic extremes we’re experiencing. Prickly pears are found all over Colorado and the southwestern deserts; they’ve long been a favored food of the area’s indigenous peoples. The fleshy pads are known as nopales; the flower and the fruit are both edible, too. Fun fact: it is totally illegal to harvest cacti on federal or private land unless you’ve been granted a BLM-issued permit or the owner’s permission! Sadly, many people ignore this and the desert is quickly being stripped of its cacti by collectors. Some of these specimens can be five hundred years old, so “they’ll regrow next year” doesn’t hold up. Collectively, humans are not very good at practicing the Leave No Trace principles, and our environment suffers greatly as a result.

Trash into treasure!

This past weekend our wonderful local arts center held its second annual ReFind Festival, which essentially involves turning trash into art. It’s a brilliant concept, and we’re always happy to participate in this fundraiser. This year, N transformed two old wooden windows into the perfect frames for his classic car photography; I turned vintage Levis into an apron and even convinced my sister to join the fun – she created this beautiful wooden jewelry box. (Great job, S!) We are proud to have this vibrant arts center in our small town and look forward to future upcycling festivals. (Here’s what we made last year!)

The only rhubarb scones we’ll have this season, sadly.

Earlier this spring, I was thrilled to discover that my ten or so rhubarb plants had survived the winter; they started putting on strong growth and I envisioned a freezer full of rhubarb for summer and fall baking. The rhubarb plants are outside of the game fence because the leaves contain high concentrations of oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans and animals – so rhubarb should, in theory, be deer-resistant. Sadly, the drought (which is clearly impacting every single aspect of our existence here in western Colorado) meant that the deer didn’t have enough forage and were desperately eating anything they could find; this included the rhubarb. I didn’t cage the plants soon enough, so every time they’d put on a bit of growth, the hungry deer would mow them to the ground again. Suffice it to say, I managed to harvest just enough rhubarb for one batch of scones, and I added strawberries because they’re such a natural pairing. The scones were fabulous, and next year I’ll know to protect the plants better. (I used this recipe as my starting point, even though the recipe title is supremely annoying; for those at altitude, I reduced the baking powder by half.)

With that, we’re going to grind on with the world’s lengthiest cabinet refinishing project. More on that to come! Stay cool and hydrated this week, friends.

Shearing day

The “before” photo of the beauty makeover.

A big event happened recently at Quiet Farm: our five rescue alpacas were successfully sheared.

Yes, Paris is bleating. But please know that shearing only frightens the animals – it doesn’t hurt them.

Every spring, a shearing team makes its way across the country, traveling over thirty thousand miles in about three months. The team usually starts in early March in the southeast, where it’s already hot and humid, then heads north and west. We organized our shearing well in advance to ensure that our badly-neglected animals could be sheared this year; western Colorado was on the schedule for late May. We booked an on-farm visit so we wouldn’t need to transport our animals; the shearers also sheared groups of animals at a local vet office and other meet-up spots. Most reputable shearers won’t shear animals past the beginning of July, particularly in cold-weather climates like ours; because we adopted these animals in mid-July of last year, we missed the shearing team. We were thrilled to host them this year.

Luke shearing Paihia. On the left is all the fleece he’s removing; the animal’s flank is seen on the right.

Our shearer was the wonderfully professional and experienced Luke, whose father basically invented the alpaca-shearing technique that’s widely used across the country now. His headman, Greg, assists with all parts of the shearing, but we were very much involved too. Please note: these images might make it seem that these animals are being abused or hurt in some way. That is absolutely not the case. Although the shearing can be stressful and frightening for the animals (mostly because they’re harnessed) the shearing is not dangerous and keeps the animal far healthier, cooler and more comfortable in a hot Colorado summer.

Paihia in the beauty salon.

Our first task, before the shearers even arrived on our farm, was to safely halter the animals then attach them via a lead to one of our corral posts so the shearing could proceed swiftly. Easier said than done with our feral bunch, and you’ll notice there are no photos of that experience! We did manage to have three of five haltered before Luke and Greg arrived, but were thankful that Luke is tall and strong enough that he can actually hoist the animal onto the blue tarp you see in the photos. Once the animal is on its side, a block-and-tackle pulley harness secures the animal’s forelegs and hind legs, leaving its flanks and belly exposed. This position is indeed a bit undignified, and the alpaca doesn’t love being splayed out, but again, there’s no injury or harm done. Good shearers like Luke work quickly and efficiently to ensure that the animal is trussed for mere minutes.

The shearers are wearing masks not because of the pandemic, but because the shearing kicks up so much dust and fiber.

Our rescue animals had years’ worth of fleece growth, so the shearing took a bit longer than most. While Luke and Greg sheared, we kept the area neat and tidy, and readied things for the next animal. There was so much fleece that it was essential it was cleared away as quickly as possible so as not to interfere with the shearers’ work. The alpacas also had their toenails clipped – why not go for a pedicure too, while you’re at it? (Alpacas do not have hooves – they have two toes on each foot, with hard toenails on top and a soft pad on the bottom. This is one reason they’re so gentle on pasture, unlike cows and horses.)

Fleece of many colors.

Our five alpacas produced nearly one hundred pounds of fleece; the two males, Paris and Fiji, generated most of that. While alpaca fleece makes spectacular fiber for rugs and many other products, these poor animals were in such terrible shape that their fleece is too matted, dirty and unkempt to be of any value. We will use this fleece as mulch around trees – like an insulation sweater! – and in the compost pile. Next year, we’re likely to save the fleece for fiber work; many professional alpaca breeders keep their animals out of the pasture and have special coats to keep the fleece from becoming dirty and matted with twigs and seedheads. Our alpacas are obviously a bit more free-range, but I’d still like to experiment with spinning the fleece, if possible.

The animals look positively tiny after their shearing.

Though it’s tough to reason with a terrified alpaca when it’s being trussed for shearing, we know that the animals are so much more comfortable after losing their heavy winter coats. Would you want to wear five wool sweaters in the height of summer? We’ve noticed that they don’t immediately seek out the shade once they’re turned out into the pasture; instead, they can graze in the sun without the risk of overheating. We are so glad that the shearing went well, and we’re grateful for Luke and Greg’s professionalism and capability.

Unfortunately, two days after our successful shearing, our alpha female Kona went into unexpected labor; neither Kona nor the cria survived. This was a heartbreaking and entirely unnecessary loss and a painful reminder that when you choose to rescue animals, you take on the consequences of the abuse and neglect that happened previously. It was also a reminder that farming comes with tough lessons, and sometimes those lessons involve death. We are glad to have these funny, irascible, quirky animals on our farm, and are actively working to give them the best lives possible here.

And here’s the “after” photo of the beauty makeover.