A Brief Technical Note

Blog posts are usually 'stacked' on top of one another, with the most recently published posts located at the top of the 'page.' Since this site will contain a finite series of essays that go in a particular order, I'm reversing things. This note and the introductory post will always appear right here. All new entries will be added below them, with the newest being at the very bottom of the 'page.' (Ignore the posting dates because they won't make sense.)

So if this is your first visit to Writings From Windridge Farm, you should start reading here and work your way down.

Direct links to each individual post are in the sidebar. Enjoy.

Prologue: How I Ended Up At Windridge

A funny thing happened on the way to moving to Vermont and opening a bakery/coffee roastery--I ended up in Missouri. After spending a couple of years back in the early 90s making two exploratory trips to that charming New England state, not to mention numerous phone calls (this was before the internet), researching everything about the place we could possibly think of, and even subscribing to the Sunday paper by mail for over a year, my (now ex-) husband (we're still friends) and I traded our little Italian convertible for a 1969 Chevy pickup, rented a large moving truck and a tow dolly for my 1967 Mercedes that I couldn't bear to part with, packed up the cats, dog, and a couple hundred small boxes of stuff (we chose books and collectibles over furniture), and headed toward a place we'd never been to in our lives.

We simply told ourselves that if we didn't like Missouri, we would just keep driving east until we found a place we did like. And if we'd landed here in the summer, I can guarantee you I wouldn't be typing this right now. But we arrived in early November, just days before an ice storm turned the tiny town where we were temporarily renting a house into an enchanting ice-covered scene from a fairytale (well, sort of). The bottom line is, we obviously stayed.

Once the ice melted, we immediately started looking at properties for sale, telling the real estate agents that we wanted 40 acres and a liveable house in a certain area for as little money as possible. But stuff happens. Plans change. Suddenly we found ourselves the new owners of a 140-year old, 280-acre homestead located off a hilly, twisty highway near which I had sworn I would never, ever live. After a few days on its blustery ridgetop, we christened our new acreage Windridge Farm.

I quickly began filling notebooks with the tales of our often ludicrous attempts to embrace farm life, and yet still maintain some semblance of a refined lifestyle in a place where squirrel is considered food and newly acquainted dinner hosts once remarked that they were "thrilled to be able to serve you pork ribs, since no one else we know has enough teeth to eat them." We wondered if we were the only ones with Haring and Calder serigraphs on the walls and blackleg vaccines in the fridge.

I did not become a back-to-nature survivalist roughing it without water, phone, and electricity (most of the time we had all those things), nor was I a wealthy retiree shielded from my surroundings by a 6,000 square foot "log cabin." I fell somewhere inbetween--growing organic rapini and arugula but not afraid to stick my hand inside a sheep or smash ice on the frozen pond with an axe.

I lived at Windridge Farm for five years, from 1995 to 2000. During that time, I published 10 issues of a newsletter called Writings From Windridge that contained lighthearted essays about my new country life, along with scrumptious food talk, garden stuff, and other tidbits. The following are excerpts from those newsletters.

Sometimes I'm still not sure how this fifth generation California girl ended up landlocked in a state I still have trouble recognizing on a map. As I said, stuff happens and plans change--sometimes drastically. But, at least for the time being, this is obviously where I'm supposed to be because this is where I am. And while there are a few things about the area that I really would prefer to live without (mainly the heat, incredible humidity, about three million ticks, and the vast distance from an ocean), I realize that no place is ever going to be perfect, and I wouldn't change the past 12 years for anything. They certainly have flown by.

7/28/06 Update: Click here for some answers to various questions that have been asked since I began posting these stories.


Welcome To Windridge

This was the introductory letter to readers included in the premiere issue of Writings From Windridge:

Like a first letter to a long lost friend, it is difficult to know where to begin. There is so much that has happened, so much to say, so much catching up to do. Images swirl faster and faster in my mind, and I cannot decide what to write about first.

The longer I live here, the more my life seems ordinary. New experiences and learned information become a part of our selves so quickly it is easy to forget that once we didn't know them. And so it is hard for me to remember a time when I couldn't vaccinate a sheep, or keep a woodstove going all night, or bake a crusty loaf of French bread. But when I leave the farm, I am soon reminded that not everyone lives like I do, and the people I talk to are often interested in hearing about my rural adventures. (You were attacked by a ram? What did you do? Were you scared? Do you milk the cows? You make your own dill pickles? How? What exactly is a llama?) Thus the impetus for creating Writings From Windridge.

During the first few months we were here, we acquired two cows, a flock of sheep, a woolly llama who guards the sheep, numerous farm cats, and enough stories to fill several journals and notebooks. Over the last two years the stories have continued to unfold. But like that letter to the long lost friend, I think that it is imporant to first get caught up on some of the details. So I will start by introducing you to the farm and letting you know a little bit about how we got here and what we've been doing. I certainly hope that you will join me on the farm in future issues as I recount my adventures with Rex, my blackberry-loving 95-pound Airdale/Rottweiler; Ollie Cat, who thinks she is a dog; Ollie's fearless daughter Molly Doodle (aka The Doodle), a 4-1/2 pound feline terror who runs the house and loves to put 14-pound Gretel in a headlock; stubborn sheep whose agendas don't always match mine (and who look awfully silly trying to eat tomatoes); Rolling Thunder, the prima donna llama who passes judgement on all of my clothing; hungry deer with a penchant for organically grown lettuce; and even an angry armadillo.

You'll also hear about what's new in my organic orchard and quarter-acre garden, savor mouthwatering descriptions of homemade country food, and even learn how to put up hay and mend a barbed wire fence. Two special features, "In The Garden At Windridge: Easing The Strain On The Environment & The Wallet" and "Journal Entry" will round things out.

There is always something new happening on the farm, which is one of the things I love most about living out here. Farm life can be hilarious, heartwarming, and even harrowing. It is often very difficult, but it is definitely never boring. No two days are ever the same as I move between my many roles as cook, gardener, shepherd, farmhand, veterinarian, surrogate mother, baker, wildlife specialist, midwife, and undertaker. Sometimes I laugh at myself, sometimes I cry for the animals, sometimes I curse at the absurdity of it all, but most of the time I'm just thankful for the incredible experience of living here at Windridge. I look forward to sharing this experience with you.

Welcome To Missouri. . .
Are You Sure You've Thought This Through?

When my husband and I started telling family and friends that we had traded our convertible Italian sports car for a '69 pickup truck and intended to pack up our dog and four cats and move from Northern California to Southern Missouri, our announcement was met with various responses. These were usually along the lines of "Are you completely out of your mind?" "That's east of here, isn't it?" "What will you do for culture?" and "I don't think they have an ocean out there." The real pessimists stated flatly, "You won't last a year." But mostly they just stared at us while their eyes bulged and a combined look of horror and disbelief crossed their faces. Their brows wrinkled as they tried to digest the enormity of what we were saying, and under their breaths they simply whispered, "Why?"

Which was exactly the same question put to us when we finally made it to Missouri. "Nice to meet you. Welcome! You moved here from where? Why?" We had standard long and short answers worked up which we used in both states, mostly having to do with wanting to get away from the traffic and smog, grown our own food, and generally improve the quality of our lives. When we got tired of those, or when we could tell they just weren't going to satisfy the questioner, we'd answer with an irrefutable, "Why not?"

But as I leaned over into the old cistern (or well, depending on who you talk to around here) on our newly purchased farm and tried to reach another piece of trash, the icy wind whipped across a small patch of exposed skin on my back, and I couldn't help but wonder that same thing myself: Why?

I stood up and pulled down my jacket, looking around the yard as I did so. Absolutely everything was covered with ice. It was the middle of winter, and in typical Missouri fashion, an ice storm had hit on the day we decided to move in. This meant, of course, that it would be next to impossible to get a 17-foot moving truck down the mile and a half of gravel drive to the house, and so we had to postpone our truck reservation. Three times. Fortunately the rental guy was used to this sort of thing, and so our fears of being labeled as "those crazy Californians who can't make up their minds" went unfounded. (There were several other things we were afraid of being labeled by the locals, but more about that another time.)

Anyway, it was our third day on the farm--although we were still sleeping in our rental house 40 miles away--and I was trying to get something done, despite the uncooperative weather. The man from the electric company pulled up just as a blast of swirling wind snatched an empty potato chip bag out of my hand. We both watched it sail across the yard and out into the pasture. He had come to install a new meter, and as he got out of his truck I caught him watching me from the corner of his eye as I slipped and slided around on the solid sheet of ice which, during warmer temperatures, would prove to be a small cement patio.

"Looks like you've got quite a job there," he said, his eyes taking in my ice-caked hair, sniffling red nose, the look of fierce determination on my face. The three giant black plastic trash bags surrounding me attested to the magnitude of my undertaking.

"The previous owners filled this old cistern with garbage. I'm cleaning it out." Since workmen who spend their days visiting peoples' homes have seen crazier things than you or I could even imagine, he didn't appear the least bit fazed by the fact that I was performing this seemingly unimportant task during an ice storm. Or maybe he was just being polite.

After he installed the new meter, he came over to where I was working and explained that the power company would be sending us a payment book, along with instructions on reading the meter.

"We get to read our own meter?" I asked incredulously. This was exciting. I had never heard of such a thing. The only thing I knew about meters was that a man from the power company would walk down our old neighborhood street each month, holding what looked like an oversized pocket calculator, and read our meter from 30 feet away. Then they would send us a bill. But things had changed. Now I would be in complete control of my electric destiny. This was independence! This was what rural living was all about! A sudden exhilarating rush of freedom raced through my half-frozen body.

But my one question had completely given me away. The electric company man now looked at me with a new sense of pity as he saw me in a different light. I was obviously as green as they come. Then it got even worse. I let him into the house as I wrote out a check for the meter deposit. It was only about ten degrees warmer in there than it was outside. My husband had been working on the woodstove (the only source of heat), and there was an awful lot of smoke in the air.

"Has he had any luck getting that thing lit?" the electric man asked, peering through the haze into the living room.

"Oh sure,"I said, trying not to cough. "Didn't we tell you--we're turning this into a smokehouse!" We both laughed as I attempted to cover up the embarrassment.

His business finished, he bid us goodbye and headed out the door. He moved hesitantly, as if he was afraid to leave the two of us alone. Halfway to his truck he turned around and came back. He handed me a scrap of paper and said to call the number on it if we had any problems at all. I figured it was the phone number of the electric company, but it may have actually been his home number. He looked that nervous.

And so the first official visitor to our new home drove away into the storm, the ice cracking and crunching under the tires of his truck. He had been perfectly friendly, but I had a sneaking suspicion he thought we were nuts--and probably wouldn't last a week out here. But I didn't care; I was too astounded by the fact that he was the first person in months who hadn't asked us Why?

Copyright 2006 FarmgirlFare.com

A Little Bit About Windridge

It's not that the farm isn't nice. In fact, several visitors have even expressed the desire to own a place exactly like this. (Well, maybe not several, but at least two.) It's just very remote and somewhat rustic. It is definitely not a place for everyone, but to me, of course, it's perfect.

It took us a long time to find it. We described our ideal piece of property to the real estate agents: acreage with at least some open space for a large garden, a livable house, and secluded. But after a few months of searching, we changed the description to simply "secluded, secluded, and secluded." They finally got the point and drove us down 40 miles of twisty, two-lane highway and a mile and a half or bumpy, one-lane gravel road to what we now call Windridge Farm.

This farm was in the same family for about 140 years. The first house (which no longer exists) was built 300 feet down in the valley next to a spring, but after the nearby overflowing stream proved that spot to be rather unstable, a log cabin was built on top of the ridge around 1870. That two-room structure still stands (barely), and was last used as a hog barn. We have plants to restore it, but until that day the logs are protected from the elements by corrugated sheets of tin that have been nailed to the outside walls.

Several yards from the log cabin is the barn, and it it my favorite building on the property. Without going into too much detail, I will say that it is two stories high, made entirely of solid oak, and absolutley wonderful. The massive logs that make up its skeleton could not have been moved by fewer than a dozen men. The outside has been painted white (no doubt many, many times), and the metal roof is red. It is one of those picturesque barns you see in country calendars and coffee table picture books. The sheep love it and sleep in or around it every night.

A few yards from the barn is the corn crib (also white with a red roof, as is the log cabin), a small, narrow building with high walls made from widely spaced oak boards that allow air to circulate through them and dry the stored corn. Right now it's filled with empty moving boxes.

The last structure in the barnyard is the old outhouse. Also made of oak and painted white with a red metal roof, it would probably be considered a deluxe model, as it is an outhouse "built for two." I don't know if this was a common practice or not. I have heard, though, that at one time there were 13 children living on the farm.

As you approach Windridge, the first thing you see in the distance is this little cluster of bright white and red buildings, and it appears to be several small houses. A closer look reveals not the bustling activity of four or five households, but an unexpected quietness and almost abandoned feeling. I find it very peaceful and not at all lonely. It is easy to feel the presence of the many generations of people and animals that have lived and worked on this patch of land for over a century.

Next to the outhouse is the sunken root cellar (a restoration work in progress), and adjacent to that is the house built after the log cabin. Its wooden boards have been covered with a type of fake tar paper shingling which is peeling off in various places. Poking out of the center of the peaked red metal roof is a small stovepipe that looks like a painted coffee can. It probably is. Outgrown some time ago, it was most recently used as a hen house. Wide roosting planks criss-cross the three small rooms at various levels, and plastic milk-crates-turned-nesting-boxes hover over the dirt floor. Cobwebs are everywhere.

And finally, a few steps away from the barnyard, is the third dwelling that has been constructed on this ridgetop. When I tell people that I live in an old farmhouse, they smile and get this romantic, dreamy-eyed look. I know the image they are picturing in their minds.

"That's not exactly it," I tell them.

The house has been haphazardly added on to over the years, usually with whatever materials were handy or cheap. This means that it includes such quaint details as several narrow enclosed porches with funny low-slanting roofs, a sink in one of the bedrooms, ugly pink paneling in the strangest places, and five doorways leading into the kitchen (including double sliding glass doors). Outside there is a set of cement stairs that leads right into a wall. It does, however, boast two full bathrooms, something practically unheard of in a house this size around here, and a constant amazement to local visitors.

Overall, the construction is fairly solid, the roof doesn't leak, and I haven't yet found a draft that can't be creatively plugged. After looking at houses for sale with plants growing up through the floors and no plumbing whatsoever, I'm definitely not complaining. Next door to the house is a rustic workshop that appears to be a cute little guesthouse if you squint your eyes and look at it at dusk. Maybe someday it will be one.

We obviously did not buy Windridge for the house. No, we bought it for its wonderful location (and that barn). The gravel driveway meanders along the top of the narrow ridge until it reaches the house at the back end of the property. Most of the ridgetop is open fields with a half dozen ponds scattered about, and the woods on either side slope steeply down to the valley below. Because we are at one of the highest places around, we have incredible views in all directions of the rolling hills. Hundreds of acres of state forest surround us on three sides.

Now you can start to see why the ugly pink paneling is no big deal.

Copyright 2006 Farmgirl Fare.com

Outfitting The Farm

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and after a month or so that first ice storm ended and the weather turned distinctly warmer, with the temperatures often reaching into the 70s. I was ecstatic, full of renewed energy and a thousand different plans for the farm. I eagerly stripped off the many layers of clothing I was afraid had become a permanent part of my body, thrilled to be moving about without the restraints of three extra inches of cotton and wool. Hats, gloves, and scarves--necessities for even the briefest trip outdoors--were tossed off with gleeful abandon, and boxes of heavy sweaters were hastily packed up, to be stored away until some hazy date too far in the future to imagine.

Summer is here, I told my husband, as California did not truly have a spring, and so I was unaware of its existence. The animals noticed the sudden warmth, too. The dog lay unmoving in the grass, legs and head stretched out as far as possible so as to allow every inch of fur to be penetrated by the sun. The indoor cats began to protest loudly if the sun had risen and we hadn't yet pulled back the curtain from the window at the head of the bed. Once open, the four of them would race to the top of the pillow pile, each quickly trying to asume the warmest, most heat-drenched spot before the others. Then the elaborate settling down ritual would begin, arranging paws and ears so that no part would be in shadow. Often this would necessitate the cramming of face and legs directly against the glass, thereby ensuring the utmost of solar benefits.

But while the animals were ready for a toasty nap, I was raring to go, and so we headed to the Big City (population 9,600) to hunt for equipment and supplies.

"Lovely weather!" could be heard wherever we went. Everyone was happy and warm, and there was a rush to buy seeds and rakes and even tiny seedling plants. The man who sold used tillers was completely wiped out of inventory.

"I may have two available soon," he said, gesturing toward a rusty pile of parts laying on the ground out back. We asked how much; we were desperate. Maybe he'd put us on some sort of tiller waiting list.

"One-fifty to two hundred. I don't like to go above two hundred," he said, but offered nothing beyond that.

We pointed to the fifty or so riding mowers parked around us like some sort of lawn tractor trainyard.

"What about these?" If we couldn't till, we could at least cut the grass.

"All repairs," he answered, looking up at us with an ever-so-slight smile on his face. No wonder he didn't bother with a tiller waiting list.

We left his shop without leaving our name, bemoaning our fate as we drove down the road. Here it was practically the heart of the gardening season already, and we had no tiller. We couldn't afford to buy a new one, and obviously every used tiller within miles had already been snapped up. We were do distraught that we took a wrong turn--and then another and another--and were soon hopelessly lost. Just what we needed, we said. Tillerless and lost. What had we done to deserve this?

But then we saw it. A bright white tiller sitting in a front yard and wearing a little sign, For Sale $75.00. We were saved! A screech of brakes and shouts of joy. A few wrods, a short demonstration, and within minutes our new used tiller was strapped down in the pack of the pickup. The guy even threw in directions back to the highway for free. We headed home, visions of juicy, ripe tomatoes dancing in our heads.

But then the unthinkable occurred. It got cold again. It didn't happen overnight; it sneaked up on us.

"High only 50 today," the forecasters would say. We ignored them. But then the ice hit, proving, for the first time of what would be many, that the most predictable thing about the weather in Missouri is its unpredictability. We were forced to reconsider our position on the seasons. The tiller was relegated to the barn, and I went looking for those boxes of heavy sweaters.

Copyright 2006 FarmgirlFare.com

"SOLD To The Little Lady Over There!" Oh No!

We weren't bothered by the returning cold though, because by this time both of us were running hot with auction fever. We tried to nurse each other back to health, but it is practically impossible for one to succeed at being a nurse when one is also a patient. And besides, we were having too much fun.

I had attended auctions before moving to the country, but they had been held inside auction houses, and the items sold usually belonged to many different people. But country auctions take place at peoples' homes, and all of their possessions are usually spread out in the yard (even if it is the middle of winter). At the first auction we attended, everything from clothing to tools to cupcake tins were there, along with the numerous odds and ends that had once filled the backs of drawers and dark recesses of cupboards. The more I looked, the more I got to know the person whose whole life was laid out before me on the lawn.

I had been to estate (or tag) sales which were similar in setting, but everything at those was left inside the house and had a pricetag on it. Because people are so scattered in these parts, auctions are preferable to estate sales because an auction guarantees that everything will be sold. The auctioneer doesn't turn off his microphone until every last scrap has found a new owner. Now I'm not saying they force you to buy things, but as the morning drags on, their tactics can become a little pushy. A country auction is not the kind of place where you want to get separated from your spourse. Unfortunately it took us a while to figure this out.

My husband had wandered off somewhere and left me with the bidding card "just in case." I listened and watched as the auctioneer sold off the housewares that covered a folding table, his rambling, almost trance-like voice urging higher bids while his practiced eye roved the crowd for any new bidders entering the arena. I tried to keep my mind off my frozen toes, wondering for the millionth time why we couldn't put all this stuff back in the house and bid on it in there. The auctioneer was about to sell a box of items. But wait! That's only going for $1.50! That's so cheap! I quickly shoved my bidding card into the air, hoping I hadn't just said all that out loud. "SOLD to number 58!"

Before I knew it my toes had defrosted, and I was starting to sweat. That warm feeling of belonging had enveloped me as I was thrust into the center of the bidding. Soon I didn't even need my bidding card because the auctioneer and his helper had memorized my number. Then I realized that meant I was now expected to constantly bid and buy. When I dropped out of the bidding for an electric mixer (I had already bought two), the entire crowd kept staring at me, even after I shook my head no several times. What could I do?

"My husband is going to kill me," I murmured as the auction man passed me my new purchase.

When my husband returned, his eyes practically popped out of his head as he surveyed the sea of treasures that surrounded me.

"What happened?" he asked, and not very quietly, but I was in the middle of bidding.

"SOLD to the little lady over there for five dollars!"

"What in the world did you just buy now?"

"Well, um, I'm not exactly sure. But it was only five dollars!"

I am such an easy sell that when I went over to the makeshift snack bar to merely check things out, I walked away with two sodas and three donuts. Five more seconds and I would have had a hamburger, too.

Food is really the only thing that can take my mind off being high bidder, and no auction would be complete without a nibble or two. Convenience cuisine has definitely invaded even the most rural areas, and sometimes the only auction offerings are overpriced sno-cones or candy bars sold by a professional snack vendor. But if you drive up to an auction and cars are parked all over the place, then it's a good bet that the ladies from the church are selling homemade goodies to benefit the hospital. Now I wouldn't say that folks go to thesee auctions simply for the food, but if you look around at one you just might notice that more people are holding up plates than bidding cards.

I picked up on all this stuff pretty quickly, and so when we pulled up to a remote farm one Saturday morning and could barely find a place to park, I left my husband to the tools and farm equipment and headed straight for the edibles. If you time things right and it's a big auction, you can fit in breakfast, lunch, and a couple of snacks--all for about $4.00. Things looked promising this morning because there was a whole swarm of ladies from the church, and they had even set up a big blue and white striped tent to cover all of the tables laden with food.

The first rule of thumb is to never wait until after lunch to purchase your dessert. All of the good stuff will be gone. In fact, I usually buy my lunch at the dessert table--it's a lot easier to rationalize three pieces of pie that way. As I stood there checking out the fried pies, I spied an obviously seasoned old-timer showing a little too much interest in the lemon meringue pie. I casually reached over and grabbed the fattest piece, just in case. After paying for everything, I scoped out the other tables and decided I would come back later for a roast pork sandwich with pickles and onions.

I headed off to find the bidding, walking slowly enough so that the lemon meringue would be gone (and telltale plate and fork disposed of) before I met up with my husband. My timing was off, though, and when I glanced up from shoveling the pie into my mouth, I saw that he was standing five feet away, staring at my plate.

"What is that?" he asked.

"Memom memom puh."

"Can I have a bite?"


That raised an eyebrow; usually I am slightly more subtle.

"You don't even like this stuff."

"Forget it then," he sulked.

Time for some sugar-induced quick thinking on my part.

"Besides, I got you this," I said as I carefully slid my hand into the front pocket of my jeans and produced a greasy, crumpled napkin.

"What is it?"

"It's a fried pie. You'll love it."

He unwrapped it with one finger and stated flatly, "This is only half a fried pie."


He turned his attention back to the bidding, so I pulled a brownie from my jacket pocket and did the same. As it turned out, though, the pie incident was nothing compared to what happened later, but it looks like that story will have to wait until next time.

Copyright 1996 & 2006 FarmgirlFare.com

Back In The Cattle Again? No Way!

Life is always proceeding at a rather hectic pace here at Windridge, and on any given day we find ourselves scattered between a half dozen projects and undertakings. Nothing ever seems to get completely finished, and we have optimistic To Do L ists from 1995 that are still full of tasks needing to be done. We run a constant race with each of the seasons, scrambling to keep up so that we don't find ourselves planting the garlic in February instead of October and preparing for lambing season the day before it opens. But since this is a farm, anything can (and does) happen, and rarely do our efforts manage to parallel our ambitions.

January is the time of year, though, when things slow down just enough for us to catch our breaths. Except for a hardy plot of turnips and a few brave lettuce plants still clinging to life under a cold frame in the greenhouse, the rest of the garden is asleep (no, all the garlic didn't get planted). It isn't quite time to start the seeds for this year's garden, and there is still a week or two before the lambs begin to arrive. The bone-chilling temperatures and arctic winds keep us indoors more than usual; it is a period of mental rather than physical exertion.

And so when the thermometer clutches relentlessly to the single digits, and the dirty dishes sit unattended because all of the water pipes have frozen, we put the tea kettle on the burner, Mozart on the stereo, and curl up with the woodstove to reflect on our lives at Windridge. We take this time to gratefully acknowledge the things that we have: a pantry full of jars brimming with the bounty of last year's garden, a small mountain of firewood to keep us warm, so many healthy, wonderful animals. We also give thanks for the things we don't have: the chiggers and ticks, the incessant buzz of chainsaws as loggers deforest the state land adjacent to ours, the agonizing humidity--and the cows. The chiggers, ticks, chainsaws, and humidity will of course all return in the spring, but the cows are never coming back.

Many of the events that happen in our lives are so connected that we tend to see them as one long thread rather than a series of separate little knots. Because of this, it can be difficult to trace the specific steps that we took to get where we are now. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, you're miles away from where you started. That is pretty much what happened to us when we moved to Windridge. One minute we were in California trying to sell a house and planning to move to New England, and the next minute we found ourselves residing in Missouri, proud new owners of a backwoods farmhouse, a grand oak barn full of animals, a well, a septic system (or two, we're still not quite certain) and rather questionable plumbing. So when I meet people and they say, "How exactly did you end up with a farm and pastures and sheep and all that other stuff?" I never have a very good answer because it all just sort of transpired in a whirlwind of new faces, new places, and several wads of money changing hands. I usually end up pathetically mumbling something along the lines of, "Actually, I'm not really sure."

But if someone happens to inquire about the cows, my response is clear, conscise, and immediate, because I know for an absolute fact that the cows were a direct result of auction fever.

It isn't as if we hadn't ever discussed the idea of getting into the cattle business. The is definite cow country (mainly because the poor, rocky soil here isn't good for much else besides pasture land), and raising beef cattle is an important part of the economy. Sometimes it seems that nearly everyone keeps a small herd on the side (keeping livestock is one thing; making a full-time living at it is quite another), and so it was only natural for the real estate agents to start drilling the cow scheme into our heads as they showed us properties that had way more open fields than any greenhorn city slicker should possess.

"Just look at this lovely pasture," they'd say, waving their arms in expansive, animated gestures toward a snow-covered patch of earth. "You could easily run 4, 10, 150 (they simply filled in the appropriate number according to the size of the property--like we would have known the difference) head of cattle here, no problem. Heck, there's so much good grass here, you could probably graze them straight through the winter."

Our eyes would again follow their arms in the direction of the snow drifts. Nothing even remotely edible was in sight. "Well, you might need a little hay."

One especially entrepreneurial agent suggested that instead of launching into a full-blown cow-calf operation, we get our feet wet by simply backgrounding some calves. We smiled, nodded our heads intelligently, and generally tried to look like we knew what he was talking about and thought that it did indeed sound like a profitable and stimulating idea.

The interesting thing was that none of these real estate agents actually had any cattle of their own. We never questioned this at the time, and when we began negotiating for a farm that was already being used as a cattle operation, acquiring a herd of our own and becoming cattle barons seemed like an immensely logical plan.

Ever the prudent (and ignorant) buyers, we refused to rush out and buy the first cows that came along. As tantalizing as the thought of instant gratification was, we were not in a rush, and there was no reason to take an unnecessary gamble with our new bovine business venture. Instead we treated this undertaking as we would any other investment opportunity; we started by doing some research.

We headed down to the local university extension office and were loaded up with free Agricultural Guides boasting such weighty titles as Value Of Beef Performance Records and Backgrounding Calves Part 1: Assessing The Opportunity. We eagerly attempted to assess our opportunity by reading such thoroughly mystifying facts as: Total TDN for a beef cow herd with an 85 percent crop of 450-lb calves (383 lbs/cow) is about 4,100 lbs per cow unit. So the cow unit requires 1.4 times the feed as a backgrounded steer. We enthusiastically tried to interpret tables of "Average monthly prices per cwt for medium frame, #1 muscled feeder steers at Kansas City from 1980 to 1987" and "Eight-year average buy-sell prices and value received per cwt for 200-lb gain produced in 180 days on 450-lb steer calves." We understood absolutely nothing.

Frustrated by facts and figures, we expanded our investigation and moved on to something more tangible: real life field research. We bumped down narrow gravel roads in search of cows in their native element. We pulled to the side of the highway and stared closely at the rows of brightly painted metal contraptions in front of the farm implements dealership. We hid among the aisles of fencing supplies and dewormer at the feed store and listened in on the conversations of anyone who looked like they might be a Big Time Cattle Dealer. And we still understood absolutely nothing.

It was time for something less discreet. We needed serious help. As so while we were in the midst of haggling over the details of buying Windridge, we declared ourselves unreachable for the day and drove three hours through a blizzard to attend The Cattle Congress.

Now this is what we needed, we said to ourselves as we walked through the doors and were greeted by a warm blast of the unmistakable smell of barnyard. Rows and rows of smiling cattle professionals were just waiting to share their knowledge with us. There were booths of feed specialists, booths of tractor dealers, and booths devoted to every breed of cow imaginable. There was even a sale ring where exquisitely groomed animals were paraded past the bleachers of spectators and sold to the highest bidder.

Everyone wanted to talk to us. Everyone was sure they could "steer" us in the right direction. And everyone told us emphatically that their breed of cow was far and above the best way to go. They even had the free literature to prove it.

The Simmental people pointed excitedly to charts showing that "Simmental-influenced dams will wean calves 41 pounds heavier than Limousin-sired females." They gave us copies of The Record Stockman, in which headlines like "Simmental Breeder Finds Color Irrelevant" ("When the hides come off, no one knows the color anyway. They just want green in their pocket and red meat on the rail"), "Packers Pay More For Simmental," and "Americal Simmental Emphasizes Beef Traits," trumpeted the superiority of one of the "oldest breeds."

The Angus people said that color did indeed matter, and the only color to buy was Angus black. They provided us with the latest issue of the Angus Beef Bulletin ("Ranch By-The-Numbers Program Uses Angus Bulls On Black Cows") and the Fall Beef Semen Price List in case we were interested in the fascinating world of artificial inseminatio. The Angus Sire Summary gave all the pertinent facts on such eager fathers-to-be as Triumph, Conveyor, Bonus, and Triple Threat. Nodding our heads intelligently (we had gotten quite good at this), we casually picked up two pamphlets that looked to be more our speed: Junior Activities: Learning To Judge Angus Cattle and For Boys and Girls: Buying, Caring For, And Showing Your Angus Heifer.

The woman at the Charolais booth was short on pamphlets but long on promising advice. "Everything goes in cycles," she explained. "Charolais may not be very popular right now, but they're good cows, and one of these years they'll be right back on top. Now is the ideal time to buy Charolais."

We even atteneded a two-hour seminar where cattle insiders told us how we could make better profits by forming strategic alliances with our friends and neighbors and retaining ownership of our imaginary herd through their stay at the feedlot.

As we drove back home through the blizzard, we reflected on all that we had learned. Over the next few weeks we reviewed the stacks of literature we had been given, slowly deciphering the professional jargon and secret buzzwords. We discussed the merits of the different breeds, and debated whether or not we should buy registered stock. We deliberated over starting with a cow-calf operation or simply backgrounding calves (now that we finally knew what these things were). We ate steak and argued over the finest cuts of beef. We priced head chutes, heated water tanks, and haying equipment. We filled our nonexistent chest freezer with 600 imaginary pounds of lean, natural beef, and fell asleep at night inventing new ways to make stroganoff and fajitas.

And then we bought a flock of sheep.

Like I said, one thing leads to another and suddenly you're miles away from where you started. So there we were at this farm auction, happy sheep owners, and not thinking in the least about cows. The crowd headed to a field below the house where there was a bunch of farm equipment to be sold, and we followed along. Nothing looked especially interesting, so I turned my thoughts toward lunch. Deeply involved with visions of homemade chili, I nearly missed the telltale sign: my husband's bidding hand began to twitch ever so slightly. An attack of auction fever was definitely setting in. Within seconds his whole arm was jerking, then his eyes glazed over and he lost control. The bidding card was stuck in the air, and we were just about to have our very own--

"What is that?"

"It's a disker."

"It's a pile of rust!"

"It's only 20. . .30. . .40 dollars!"

"We don't even have a tractor!"

"We will someday."

I jumped up and snatched the bidding card from his hand. His eyes went back to normal, and the disker went home with somebody else. It was a close call, though, and I vowed to keep a better eye on him.

To Be Continued. . .
(I'll make an announcement on Farmgirl Fare when the next installment is up.)

Copyright 1997 & 2006 FarmgirlFare.com

The Conclusion To
Back In The Cattle Again? No Way!

The bidding card was stuck in the air, and we were just about to have our very own--

"What is that?"

"It's a disker."

"It's a pile of rust!"

"It's only 20. . .30. . .40 dollars!"

"We don't even have a tractor!"

"We will someday."

I jumped up and snatched the bidding card from his hand. His eyes went back to normal, and the disker went home with somebody else. It was a close call, though, and I vowed to keep a better eye on him.

But my mind drifted to images of dessert, and I hardly noticed when the auctioneer motioned us all over to a three-sided barn full of cows. A single black and white calf paced anxiously around one of the paddocks, and the auctioneer started the bidding. Unlike a livestock sale barn, there were no giant scales and lighted signs showing the current bid price per hundredweight--or even the weight of the animals. These cows were to be sold the same way as a table or a chainsaw: one item, one price, no guarantee on anything--and all sales final.

Things started off slowly but then picked up as two determined bidders furiously went at it. I glanced up at my husband who had climbed the paddock fence to get a better view. Oh no.

"What are you doing?" But the fever had returned. His entire body was quivering. "You're bidding on a cow!"

"I know. And he's a good looking little guy, too."


Every head turned toward us, and the auctioneer was silent. This was only slightly less embarrassing than the time an auctioneer had once put down his microphone to politely inform my husband and me that we were bidding against each other.

It was too late, though; even total humiliation could not faze auction fever. He not only bought a steer "for the freezer," but "a little heifer to keep him company" as well. What was to become of the little heifer after the steer moved into the freezer was never discussed.

After convincing the lady in charge of collecting money to accept our check even though my husband had only a temporary (and very suspicious looking) Missouri driver's license (evidently we were the only people at the entire auction that she didn't know), we arranged for delivery of our approximately 800-pound purchase. We paid $7.50 per cow to be hauled 15 miles, though our notes from The Cattle Congress said it should cost $2.00 to transport a cow 90 miles. The disadvantages of having such a small herd were quickly becoming obvious.

The cows were deposited at the far edge of the field near the house, and there they stayed, patiently waiting for someone to come back and get them. After about a week they realized they were stuck here, so they ambled into the barnyard and proceeded to take over the farm.

They immediately claimed one of the barn stalls as their own and lounged in it whenever they weren't out covering the choicest niblets of clover with their colossal cow chips. They insisted on eating all of the clean bedding hay in the barn. They declared the pond where the sheep drank to be their private swimming pool and spent hours each day completely submerged except for their giant eyes, flaring nostrils, and twitching tails.

Advised by farmer friends that their skinnydipping was probably an attempt to relieve the symptoms of "fescue fever," a constant elevated temperature caused by eating the fescue grass so prevalent around here, we rushed out and spent $40 on a 125-pound carton (the smallest size available and about a five year supply for two cows) of a special molasses-based mineral mix designed to combat the problem.

While every barnyard animal in the universe devours molasses like kids devour candy--including the sheep, who were not allowed to eat the "Fescue Lyx" because it contained copper, which can be toxic to sheep--our cows refused to touch it. Our ever helpful friends, who claimed their calves are born with an addiction to the stuff, said they were simply too young. After months of hauling 125 pounds of molasses goo in and out of the barnyard, we hefted the by-then-moldy cardboard carton into the bed of the pickup ck and hauled it over to our friends' junkie cows. Within five minutes they had consumed the entire $40, including the moldy cardboard.

Except for the shared molasses hatred, the two cows were extreme opposites. Oreo, black with a white stripe around his middle and acutely aware of the lack of males around the farm, quickly set about becoming the World's Friendliest Steer--thereby ensuring a fate as pet rather than entree. Harriet, the unoriginally named Hereford heifer and a haughty troublemaker, refused to be touched. This, combined with the fact that we had not invested in a $2,000 head chute for our herd of two, meant that it was impossible to vaccinate her. The dewormer, a liquid applied to a spot on the back, was squirted at her from a distance.

Understandably, the sheep did not like Oreo and Harriet. They were big and lazy and they smelled funny. They made a mess of the barn and they had flies. Rolling Thunder, the sheep's extremely fastidious guard llama, despised them. And as winter descended and it became clear that the cranky, hungry cows had no intention of foraging in the snow for any portion of their daily intake and demanded as much hay as the entire flock of sheep, we began to loathe them, too.

It was too late to sell them, though, our cattle expert friends informed us; auction prices were down for the season and still falling. Better to wait until spring. So we watched the snow pile up and forced the cows out to forage. Ordinarily we rotate the animals between pastures, but in the winter food is scarce, and we let them wander wherever they like. They are usually very good about staying in the mostly fenced fields and not venturing in to the woods. But no hungry animal can resist a wide open gate.

I refer to it as The Great Cow Caper, though The Last Straw would really be more appropriate. My husband returned from getting the mail one particularly snowy day and was clearly distressed.

"I need your help. NOW!"

It seems that he had decided to leave the gate at the entrance to the property open while he made the ten minute trip to our mailbox out at the highway. At the time there were no animals anywhere near the gate, and besides, a metal cattle guard spans the entire opening. But just as he rounded the corner on his way back, he caught sight of Harriet sailing over the four feet of cattle guard. Oreo was not far behind. He jumped out of the truck and ran along the fenceline after them, but they vanished into the woods.

We returned to the getaway scene and trudged through the snow, following their trail of hoofprints. The terrain is steep and rugged and progress was slow. We figured that our lazy, ambling cows could not have gotten far. We were very wrong. We watched in amazement as their trail winded its way up and down hills, around trees, over huge rocks. Panting and exhausted and frustrated to no end, my husband simply muttered over and over, "I can't believe 1000 pounds of bovine just evaporated!"

It did seem rather hopeless, and if they had not been worth so much money we would have gladly let them go. We laughed at the thought of some lucky rabbit hunter shooting two wild cows and lugging them home to his wife.

After about 3/4 of a mile we finally caught up with them. But we still had to get them onto our land. Herding them back to the gate would be impossible. Instead we knocked down part of our fence and spent twenty minutes trying to coax them through the opening. Harriet wouldn't come near us, and every time we got close to Oreo she lured him away. My husband was livid and ran after them, shouting that he was going to turn them both into steaks right there in the snow.

We did eventually get them back into our field, though I honestly cannot recall how we did it. I do remember that we agreed then and there that it was time to get rid of the cows, low prices or not. We called the sale barn and were given the name of a man who said he would haul them the 40 miles for $40. He backed his 24-foot trailer into the barnyard (after hitting a few fenceposts along the way) and slid the doors open. The cargo was lured into the trailer with an armful of hay, and we waved goodbye with a sigh of relief as they drove off.

Oreo and Harriet gained about 350 pounds while they were at Windridge, and we still lost $100 per cow. We think we got off cheap; we almost lost our minds. Time has passed, and we can laugh about it all now, but when we sit back in winter and give thanks, the first thing one of us always says is, "Thank goodness we don't have those cows!"

There are more stories where these came from. I'll post an announcement on Farmgirl Fare when the next one is up.

Contents copyright 1996 & 2006 FarmgirlFare.com


Journal Entry: Random Food Notes

The back page of each Writings From Windridge newsletter contained miscellaneous entries from my farm journals, along with a brief note to readers. These various journal tidbits were pulled together for an issue published during the middle of winter--a tasty reminder of this foodie's first summer on the farm. My note to readers is at the end.

7/17/1995 Monday
Last night enjoyed the first yellow crookneck squash from the garden. Sliced and sauteed it with lots of onion and extra-virgin olive oil and some freshly ground pepper. Delicious!

Discovered the "chicken of the woods" wild mushroom during one of our foraging expeditions last week--it's like finding five pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast just sitting next to a tree. Even the texture is nearly identical to chicken. Have been feasting on it in all sorts of ways: sliced it up and put it on a pizza; sauteed it with olive oil and several cloves of garlic, sopping everything up with hunks of homemade crusty bread; even marinated it in teriyaki and grilled it.

9/11/1995 Monday
Put up seven more quarts of pickles (total now 27) using the first of the fresh dill from the garden. Didn't expect to get any more cucumbers, as the plants were looking pretty wiped out after a month of temperatures in the 90s and hardly any rain, but they perked up after two back-to-back storms last week and surprised me with several more pounds of pickles-to-be.

Baskets of colorful garden bounty occupy every flat space in the kitchen--melons, tomatoes, sweet red peppers, bush beans, squash.

Baked banana walnut bread last night. Had pesto pizza topped with lots of thick slices of golden tomatoes for dinner. Made five cups of pesto with overflowing basil from the garden--barely put a dent in the plants. Froze extra so we can instantly flavor sauces, etc. this winter.

9/17/1995 Sunday
Ate the last garden cantaloupe for breakfast. The rest are neatly cubed and in the deep freeze for smoothies--a welcome burst of sunshine some snowy morning. Gave a big bucket of rinds to the sheep--most of them snubbed their noses, but a few (including Gertie of course) smacked their lips and sucked them right up--I don't even think they stopped to chew.

Later made some potato salad and nibbled on that (mayonnaise, sour cream, splash balsamic vinegar, dijon, salt, pepper, paprika, lots of fresh chives) along with rest of last night's marinated green bean and cherry tomato salad.

Harvested three huge turnips today--beautiful! Washed greens and put in refrigerator for later. Gave stems to the sheep. Picked several pounds of purple and yellow bush beans. Placed them in a tub of cool water until tomorrow when I will blanch and freeze them.

Dinner: English pasties with ground beef, new potatoes, and one of the turnips. Also tossed in some of the wild mushrooms we found a few months ago and dried--very tasty. Baked an apple cobbler for dessert--ate it warm with scoops of French vanilla ice cream.

Note To Newsletter Readers, Jan/Feb 1997 issue:
The first real snowfall of the season is wrapping Windridge in a thick blanket of white as I write this. The barn is suddenly stark without its bright red roof, and the snowflake-covered woollies are vanishing into the landscape. The mailbox will be unreachable by morning. But the cats are safely snuggled into a furry jumble inside the greenhouse, the woodstove is exuding warmth and reassurance, and an unexpected change of scenery is always welcome. Silence envelops the farm. Peacefulness and snow seem invariably intertwined.

To be continued. . .
I'll make an announcement on Farmgirl Fare when the next Writings From Windridge Farm post is up.

Copyright 1997 & 2006 FarmgirlFare.com.

I Traded My Dog For A Herd Of Deer
Hindsight's 20/20--But It's Even Better With A Rifle-Mounted Scope

Sometimes we never fully appreciate the importance of something until we no longer have it. Often this is because we take that thing--be it a close friend, a good job, or functional plumbing--for granted because we are so used to having it around. Once it is gone, we of course begin to miss it dearly. But there are other things we purposely decide to remove from our lives, glad to see them go because we know they are more of a hindrance than a help. Beware of making those decisions, for they are the ones you are likely to regret. It is the things we believe have no use which often turn out to be the most valuable. Believe me, I say this because I have firsthand experience in this matter. Or maybe I should say "firstpaw" experience.

It all started with Rex. He is our 95-pound, black and tan Airedale/Rottweiler who had been pestering us to get him a playmate since the day we rescued him (at 6 months old and 60 pounds) from the dog pound five years ago. Rex loves people--especially children--but more than anything he loves other dogs. When we lived in the city and took him for walks he would go nuts whenever he saw another dog--even if it growled like mad at him and clearly wanted only to tear out his throat.

As he moped about the yard it was hard to ignore the signs: obviously his life would not be complete until another canine member joined the household. And so as he patiently rode with my husband in the moving truck across five states and away from everything that was familiar to him (I followed behind in the pickup with a camper full of cats on the back), we promised Rex that once we bought a place in the country he could get a puppy.

When we arrived in Missouri we quickly became regulars at the local animal shelter, stopping by every week or so to look over the available canine inventory in the hopes of spotting the perfect pooch. A week before moving to Windridge we found it--a small black and tan puppy that had been tossed into a plastic garbage bag with her four siblings and dumped in front of a vet's office. Her paperwork claimed that she was part Rottweiler. Rex would love her, and she would no doubt develop into a big, scary guard dog--just what we wanted. She crawled onto our laps and stared up at us with that pitiful look only a tiny orphan puppy is capable of giving. That did it.

We filled out the adoption papers and convinced the shelter people (with the help of a 50-pound sack of dog food) to board her for anotoher five days while we prepared to move. During that long week I playfully referred to our new little bundle of cuteness as Buttercup, though each time I said it my husband insisted that we were certainly not going to name her Buttercup, and as soon as we got to know her better a more dignified name would be chosen.

But when she greeted us that first morning on the farm at 4am with a high-pitched, relentless yap, my infuriated and groggy husband stumbled over to her makeshift pen in the laundry room and shouted, "BUTTERCUP! SHUT UP!" and that, in my opinion, settled that. Like it or not, we would one day have a 100-pound, bloodthirsty watchdog named Buttercup.

But B.C., as we came to call her, did not grow into anything even remotely resembling a Rottweiler. She got tall and lanky and then stopped growing at about 50 pounds. She was very sweet but absolutely uncontrollable. She did not merely run and jump like a normal puppy--she bounced everywhere. She bounced around the yard, she bounced up to the cats (scaring them half to death in the process), she bounced right over fences. She barked mightily at intruders and strange noises, but she didn't look the least bit viscious. In fact she was rather silly looking. We couldn't quite figure out what she was, except cute. It was not until an enormous buck crossed the road about 100 feet in front of us one day during a walk that we finally figured it out. She bounced off after him at lightning speed, her paws only touching the ground every few yards, an instinctual, howling yelp escaping from somewhere deep inside her. B.C. was a hunting dog.

Unfortunately her excessive energy and love of the chase did not mesh well with a flock of sheep. She would bounce right at them, sending them into a panic-stricken flight which she took to be the beginning of a game. She meant no harm, but sheep are very nervous, very defenseless animals who can easily be run to death--and she was big enough to hurt one if she did happen to catch up to it. Confining her was impossible, and she spent hours each day roaming the fields behind the house, nose to the ground, intently following invisible trails. Chaining up a dog out in the country seemed not only absurd but also cruel. We loved B.C., but she was causing too much trouble. Her negative attributes outweighed her positive ones (which, my husband was so fond of pointing out, were so far nonexistent). She had to go.

It was only after she had become the new companion of an ecstatic 11-year-old boy did we realize just how valuable B.C. had been to us. In fact, the signs began to appear the very next day after her departure.

"Come quick!" my husband yelled from the window. "There's a huge buck by the orchard!"

We stood in awe and watched as he casually strolled through the persimmon grove adjacent to our fenced orchard. What a rare treat to have such a magnificent creature grace us with his presence--especially so close to the house. I opened the door and stepped outside to get a closer look at him. Unconcerned by my presence, he continued to slowly make his way through the trees, pausing now and then to lower his head to the ground for a nibble.

"Of course," I said. "He must be eating the fallen persimmons. How sweet." Eventually he wandered off towards the woods, and we went back to whatever we had been doing.

Looking back, it is difficult for me to believe that I could have actually been so stupid. But only when one is looking back is one able to say such things. At the time I had no idea of what was to come.

The days passed, and the buck did not return to the yard or to our thoughts. I was too busy in the garden to have noticed him anyway--the harvest and planting of late summer had all of my attention. There were pounds and pounds of ruby red paste tomatoes still begging to be picked and simmered (along with freshly harvested garlic, onions, sweet basil, Greek oregano, and Italian flat leaf parsley) into jars of sauce that would be so cherished during the winter months. There were thick bunches of cilantro next to jalapeno pepper and cherry tomato plants weighted down with ripe bounty--an open invitation for fresh salsa if there ever was one. There were six types of beans that needed to be hung up and dried, along with radish plants that had flowered and gone to seed. There were perfect rows of tiny heads of buttercrunch lettuce in my new shaded lettuce patch, plus escarole, endive, and arugula, that cried out to be tossed with nothing more than a few yellow pear tomatoes, a handful of fresh herbs, and a simple vinaigrette. And there were the fall crops that had been started weeks before in the greenhouse and now awaited transplant: kale, Swiss chard, collards, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, bok choy.

I spent hours each day in the garden--picking, planting, pruning, and even planning next year's plots (these plans begin immediately following the first crisis or disappointment of the season, such as when the pumpkins are destroyed by an invasion of squash bugs or all of the bush beans are burned to a crisp by a much-too-strong spraying of copper sulfate). I was acutely aware of everything that was going on in my carefully tended patch of ground--so of course I noticed the bite marks.

I didn't think much of them, though, as they were nothing more than a few munched lettuce leaves. I blamed them on the rabbit I had once seen scampering out from beneath the broccoli plants--until I returned to the garden the next day and took a careful look at my rows of tender buttercrunch. They no longer looked so tender. That was because every single head of lettuce had the center neatly nibbled out of it. All sixty plants! I was horrified. The last precious salads of the season had been eaten by somebody else--and a gourmet at that. I fell to my knees and tried to keep from crying.

That was when I saw the hoofprints. There they were, thoroughly preserved in the soft, organic soil--clear proof and identification of the feasting intruders. The sheep! They had somehow gotten through the fence and into my garden! One of them even left a tidy little pile of pellets right there in the dirt--more evidence. I immediately marched into the barnyard and checked the sheep for guilty looks, but their woolly faces revealed nothing, and of course my inquiries went unanswered.

Determined to catch them red-handed (hooved?) in the garden--and thereby discover their mode of entry as they attempted to flee--I camped out at the bathroom window, which overlooks the garden, armed with an enormous flashlight. As soon as it was dark I flicked it on and pointed its blinding beam into the black. I couldn't believe it. There was Rolling Thunder, our sheep-guarding llama, standing in the middle of the garden and staring straight at me! I could easily make out his long woolly neck in the dim light. And those cute, pointy ears--they were impossible to miss. Those definitely weren't his hoofprints I'd seen, though; he was obviously leading a group of sheep into the garden for a nightly tidbit. And he just sood there. What nerve!

I flew out the door and around the house into the garden, brandishing my giant flashlight all the way. But Thunder, who can run as fast as a horse if he so desires, had completely disappeared. I waved my flashlight all around but illuminated nothing except a completely closed gate and a couple of very confused cats. I then stomped into the barnyard and found Thunder standing calmly as if nothing had happened. He wasn't even breathing hard.

Back in the house I contemplated more extreme action. Climbing up into one of the trees next to the shaded lettuce patch perhaps? Out of curiosity I returned to my post at the bathroom window and flicked on my trusty torch. Unbelievable! Thunder was back in the exact same spot, staring me down with that pompous look of his. I ran out into the garden again, this time intent on seeing how he was getting in and out. I walked slowly over to where I had spotted him from the bathroom and Aha! Oops. Well, it didn't look like a 6-foot metal fencepost draped with a big brown blanket--it looked like a llama. Those ears--I know I saw those ears.

So there I was, absolutely humiliated and still facing the mystery of how the sheep were getting to my lettuce. And the next day things got even worse: the nocturnal nibblers had returned and polished off all the outer leaves of the lettuce, leaving me with nothing but a few stubs--and several more hoofprints.

That night I prepared for another stakeout at the bathroom window, and when darkness fell, click! There they were! Eyes! Four beady little eyes caught in the glow of my flashlight. I knew it! Gotcha you little woolly brats with your big--antlers? Deer? Deer! Of course--their hoofprints look just like the sheeps'. Where in the world was Rex? Some watchdog.

I screamed vicious threats at them through the open window (the flashlight reflected off the glass when it was closed; it was nippy but worth it). They immediately turned and ran toward the back garden fence--and then sailed right over it. I slammed the window shut, grabbed my flashlight, and tore out to the garden to make sure they were really gone. Rex trotted over to me (still sluggish with sleep) just as I caught sight of some eyes in the field behind the garden. I raced toward them, urging Rex to follow and attack, but he was so excited that we were out playing together in the middle of the night that he was completely oblivious to everything else. I yelled again and scared them off, but I knew they would be back. This was war.

The next few months were trying ones indeed. Battle tactics on both sides escalated as the days went by. I was determined to get rid of the deer, and they were determined to eat every speck of green I had planted. Each day they devoured something new from their organic garden buffet. They became less and less picky with every visit, munching only the tops of the Swiss chard and rapini one night, then returning to finish off the lower parts of the plants a few days later. They decimated the celeriac and gobbled up the kale the night before I planned to harvest it. They braved a hailstorm just to eat my cilantro.

But it was my shaded lettuce patch that remained their favorite spot for snacks. In planning this long, narrow plot, I had considered only the fact that it was shaded for most of each day by several tall trees, thereby allowing me to grow lettuce even during the hot summer months. I had not, however, taken into account that the tall trees happened to be persimmons, which meant that not only did the yellowing leaves and mushy fruits of late summer fall all over my lettuce, but I had also provided the damn deer with a fresh fruit and salad bar. For although I think that the six million or so tiny persimmons the trees produce each year taste exactly like soap, every other creature around here seems to think that they taste like ambrosia (remember that first magnificent buck?). Add that to the fact that the garden is strategically located directly between two other large persimmon groves, it is no wonder the deer zeroed in on my little organic piece of paradise. What had kept them at bay until now? We finally realized it had been B.C.

Once the deer had polished off the persimmons and run out of good things to eat in the garden, they didn't leave--they got angry. At night I covered what few plants remained with cotton sheets held down by rocks, and they responded by visiting during a heavy rain and fiercely stomping the sheets (along with the plants beneath them) into the mud. One morning I found woven wire tomato cages smashed and flattened and turnips pulled from the ground and tossed into the grass. They even ate six entire wormwood plants which are supposedly poisonous. I would have sworn that the neighbors were sneaking into the garden and playing a cruel joke on me--if only we had any neighbors.

Friends I told of my troubles refused to believe me and simply laughed. They obviously had no idea what I was dealing with. These were not your ordinary nervous little deer--these were six-foot-high eating machines who showed absolutely no fear. They ignored Rex's murderous barks because they knew he couldn't get into the garden (one large dog plus one large garden equals way too much damage). They briefly looked up from eating when my husband fired a shotgun at them from a few yards away. Whenever they did run off, it was only to the safety of the persimmon grove, where they waited until we were out of sight and then hopped right back into the garden.

Sometimes yelling at them worked, as I discovered one night when I ran straight at them in the dark, making every meat-eating animal noise I could think of--lion, tiger, dog, coyote, giant monkey. Back in the house I informed my husband that I had scared them off. He said of course I had--one probably said to the other, "Let's get out of here, Marvin. Now she's making bad animal noises." The second time I did it (I sounded a lot scarier) I decided they were running away because they probably figured I had rabies or something. I definitely sounded out of my mind--whatever I was supposed to be. But it kept them away for a day, and after that I took to walking outside and howling like a coyote without warning. It scared my husband half to death.

I spent more of each night at my freezing bathroom lookout than in bed. No matter what time it was, the enemy was always out there. One night I spied two huge bucks hanging out behind the orchard. I dashed outside and took Rex along with me. A few weeks earlier I had opened up the orchard to him in the hopes that he would patrol it at night, but unfortunately during the previous year I had drilled it into his brain a little too hard that he was not supposed to leave the yard at night. He refused to set foot in there. When I caught one in the beam of my flashlight I ordered Rex to sic 'em. But did my faithful 95-pound dog charge at the deer that was less than ten yards away? No. He didn't even see it--he was too busy eating persimmons. One of the cats ran past him after the deer. Oh, how I longed for B.C.

I am a peace-loving person at heart, and the constant warfare began getting to me. I was starting to lose it. When I peered out the bathroom window one morning and saw that enemy forces had taken one of the sheets covering some plants and twisted it up into an angry little ball, I didn't let out a groan--I let out a growl.

I couldn't concentrate on anything but the deer; it was impossible to escape from them. As I gathered up some muddy turnips they had ripped from the ground, I glanced up at the clear blue sky and saw a lone, fast-moving cloud directly overhead--shaped exactly like a prancing deer. And when I was working in the garden one afternoon and two huge deer walked nonchalantly up to the fence and hopped over it not 50 feet from me, I truly believed I was hallucinating. Too stunned to react, I stimply stood and watched them casually inspecting the plots, taking a bite here, a taste there. Though these deer can detect a faint whiff of parsley from half a mile away, my presence had obviously eluded them. I called out softly to them to see what they would do. Nothing. I called a little louder. No response. I ran toward them screaming at the top of my lungs, "DEER SEASON OPENS TOMORROW AND I'VE GOT A GUN!" That got rid of them (though they knew I was lying and returned the next day with two friends).

As I watched their retreating white tails bounding away I could feel myself going over the edge, but I no longer cared. They have driven me to the brink of this very deep ravine, I told myself, and if I go, they go, too. I will reach out with both hands and grab onto an antler before I begin to fall. I let out a fiendish cackle and started wondering how much a good deer rifle with a high-powered scope cost, and whether I should put night vision goggles at the top of my Christmas list.

Never a big fan of taxidermy, I now saw it in a whole new light. A smile crossed my lips as I imagined the entire herd mounted in the living room, little bits of buttercrunch hanging from their mouths. Yes, that was it, and I would name each of them after whatever they had been eating when I blew them away with my big new gun. Then I could look up at them and say, "A little more, Arugula?" and "Oregano, Endive, what about you?" I let out another cackle.

I would probably be lying in a padded cell somewhere right now, dressed in camouflage and howling like a coyote, if the first snowfall hadn't arrived and signaled a truce. I placed tarps securely over the few remaining turnips to help them survive the cold (and further attacks), and the deer, having polished off everything else edible, stopped coming around. But I know they will be back as soon as the first tender lettuce is ready to eat, and I have spent much of the winter preparing for our next encounter. When they tiptoe up to my garden fence, they will be surprised to find that it has grown from four feet high to ten, as I will soon be installing deer-proof mesh fencing along the entire perimeter of the garden and orchard.

And if that doesn't work, I have something else up my sleeve. No, it is not a mail order package of coyote urine, or the special deer-deterring electronic noise machine that my husband suggested we buy (until I politely pointed out to him that if the deer were not the least bit frightened by gunfire, then it was highly unlikely that they would flee from an annoying whistle sound), or even a shiny new deer rifle. My solution did not come from a store, and in fact it cost me nothing. It simply appeared in the yard one sunny morning after a week-long snowstorm--exhausted, half-frozen, and extremely glad to see me. I picked it up and was immediately given that pitiful look only a tiny orphan puppy is capable of giving.

Yes, my secret weapon is a Genuine Deer Chasing Dog, and I have named her Robin. She looks like a cross between a beagle and one of those little circus dogs that jumps through a flaming hoop, and although she's just a pup, she already spends hours each day roaming the fields behind the house, nose to the ground, following invisible trails. She's cute and sweet and almost exactly like B.C.--right down to the way she chases the cats away from her food bowl and pulls all the clean laundry off the line. But she'll be a lot smaller, and she doesn't bounce. Rex, of course, is ecstatic. And so am I.

October 2006 Note: Robin grew up to be a beautiful, smiling beagle who absolutely loves country life. She is a wonderful companion, an accomplished hunter of squirrels, rabbits, and even armadillos, a diligent watchdog with a deep, bellowing bark that belies her little size, and of course a crackerjack deer chaser. She is the stuff of so many happy memories, and I can hardly believe that she will soon be ten years old. Every single day I am grateful for the moment that Robin trotted into my life.

There are more stories where these came from. I'll post announcements on Farmgirl Fare and In My Kitchen Garden when the next one is up.

Midnight Mothers & Minding The Moonsigns:
A Busy Spring At Windridge

Written in March, 1997 at Windridge Farm

I came across an article the other day that discussed the history of linen. While most of us no longer sleep between sheets of this soft, lightweight material, for centuries it was used by everyone from royalty to peasants. Bedding, clothing, curtains, and even feed sacks were all made of linen. Although the task of turning a field of flax into finely woven cloth was an arduous one, requiring countless hours of labor, linen was for centuries the most readily available fabric.

There were, according to the article, two basic reasons for this. One was that flax thrived in the temperate European climate, while cotton only grew in hotter places like India. The other reason was that "a field of flax was also cheaper to look after than a herd of hungry sheep, and a pocketful of seeds was more portable."

Now wait just a minute. In that one sentence, the author (who obviously knows nothing about sheep, as it's a flock, not a "herd") has completely dismissed the entire wool industry. I can understand the rationale behind her statements, but I don't think it's fair to compare an adorable flock of sheep to a field of spindly little plants.

I know from firsthand experience that some fo those flax farmers were sorely missing out. So the sheep farmers had to pay for veterinary services once in a while. So they couldn't pick up and run off to Paris every other weekend--as I'm sure all the flax farmers did. Raising sheep is full of rewarding moments that you just can't get from a pocketful of seeds. Take lambing season for example.

If you raise flax, you take one last look at your fields before nightfall, and then you go to bed. Perhaps you try to decide which field you will harvest the next day as you are drifting off to sleep. You may even have a dream in which your flax makes an appearance. But you definitely do not get up in the middle of the night to make sure that your fields are still out there, and that they are not having any problems. No, a flax farmer will never know the joys of waking up at two in the morning from a deep sleep, bundling into five layers of clothing, and stumbling out to the barn in seven degree weather to check if anyone is having a baby.

A sheep farmer on the other hand (or at least this one), is exceedingly familiar with such nighttime pleasures. For some reason, all of our older ewes prefer to have their lambs in the middle of the night. This, I have decided, is because they do not want to take time out from the extremely important daytime task of eating to do something as mundane as giving birth.

I will admit, though, that this year I did not make nearly as many midnight trips out to the barn as last year. In fact, everything about lambing season was more relaxed this year--probably because I was still recovering from last year.

Last year we did everything by the book. We gasped in horror at the stories a longtime sheep farmer told us of newborn lambs that had frozen to death out in the field during the night. We were astounded that anyone would not know the exact date when their first lambs were due because they had allowed their ram to run with the flock all year long.

We, in comparison, kept meticulous records of everything and remained in complete control of the breeding situation--and our more laid-back sheep farming friends were kind enough to refrain from saying anything to us about our obsessiveness.

On the appropriate fall day of our first breeding season, we lashed our special mail-order marking harness to The Count, our short but strapping brown Border Leicester ram who was more than ready to get down to the business at hand, and let him in with the girls. The bright red crayon attached to the front of the harness allowed The Count to "mark" the backs of the conquered ewes, which in turn allowed us to keep track of just who had been bred when. Eight weeks later, we returned The Count to solitary confinement (much to his dismay), and exactly five months after breeding season opened the first lambs were born.

Lambwise, things started out with a bang that first year and just kept banging. It was an educational experience, to say the least, as I went from never having seen anything being born to having 24 lambs in 50 days arrive on the farm. As we had purposely purchased mostly older ewes who were veteran mothers (because even if we had no idea what was going on, at least they did), there werent't any major problems, though we did have a few surprises.

The first ewe to give birth, a black-faced Suffolk we'd named Sophie, had quadruplets--an extremely rare occurrence with Suffolk sheep. One was stillborn and another died in my arms moments after being born, but the two that survived are now the biggest lambs we have. They had tiny black faces and legs, and their white woolly bodies were speckled with black spots.

We immediately began calling them The Chippers because curled up together they looked like two scoops of chocolate chip ice cream. Chip and Chip, who have since lost their spots, are extremely sweet and always trot over to me for pets and hugs. Although they are both boys and should be headed for a freezer (my husband wanted to start calling them Chop and Chop), I am keeping them. *

The next lambs were born only hours after The Chippers, and more continued to arrive every day or two--most of them in the middle of the night. It was not uncommon for me to head out to the barn at 2 a.m. and find a ewe happily munching on grass in the barnyard with a brand new set of twins at her side. (One naturally works up an enormous appetite giving birth to twins).

Even when I missed out on the action, there were still several post-birthing tasks that needed to be done. First of all, the mother and her lamb(s) must be moved into a barn stall where they can bond for a few days. This step alone can take what seems like an awfully long time at two in the morning, as you cannot simply call a sheep over like you can a puppy.

Usually I end up taking the newborn lamb in my arms and slowly backing toward the barn while the mother sniffs and bleats and (hopefully) follows after her baby. The catch is that the backing up must be done entirely from a crouching position so the baby is kept close to the ground; all moms know that lambs can't fly, and a ewe would never think to look for her little darling up in the air.

Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. The skittish mothers who never willingly come near me do not generally catch on to the fact that I am holding their baby. They circle frantically around the barnyard calling for it, and every few steps the lamb must be set down so the mother can find it, sniff it, and assure herself that it is indeed hers. Thus assured, she usually starts looking around for something to eat. You can imagine how interesting this scenario becomes when one of the sheep gives birth way out in a field.

Once safely in a bonding pen together, the mother will finish cleaning off her lamb and murmur sweet nothings in its ears, while I snip the umbilical cord and douse it with iodine to prevent infection. Within minutes the tiny newborn is up on its wobbly legs looking for a drink. A struggle of sorts then generally begins, as mother is determined to keep baby near her face, while baby wants to head to the other end of mother and sidle up to the milk bar. At this point I simply step back and look on, captivated by the tender scene before me.

Reproduction is a simple, ingeneous process which gets very complicated when you are armed with charts and notes and breeding schedules. Sometimes it is better to just let nature lead the way, as we realized when our model sheep breeding operation lapsed a few months later. When The Count's passive affections toward us turned to angry butts and incessant moans long before fall, we gladly returned him to his girls, sans marking harness. And although his early relocation ensured that the arrival date of this year's first lambs would be a complete surprise, we were all a whole lot happier.

We ended up breeding fewer ewes this year, too, and since some of them were lambing for the first time, they were not adverse to daylight births--which means I got a lot more sleep. There were a few late nights, though, when Ollie Cat, Garden Kitty, and I sat patiently in the hay keeping a straining mother-to-be company, while moonlight streamed through cracks in the walls of the old oak barn and a million stars twinkled overhead. On our farm in the middle of nowhere we would quietly await another miracle--a miracle that no flax farmer will ever have the chance to experience.

Sheep aren't the only thing we produce around here, though, and in between the arriving lambs I try to start my seeds for the garden. Because our weather is so unpredictable, and because I like to have complete control over my several thousand tiny seedlings, I start nearly all of my seeds indoors in plastic trays.

This is a rather complex process. First of all, I never get around to starting any seeds until the middle of March because I'm too busy with lambing, so long before our last frost date I feel as if I'm already behind. Secondly, we heat our house with wood. Why does this matter? Because the week I choose to start my first seeds is inevitably the week that we have a spell of sunny and warm weather, which means that if we do not let the fire in the woodstove go out, the house will be stifling hot during the day. And unless we relight the woodstove each night (which we inevitably do not), the temperature in the house hovers at only around 60 degrees--bearable for us but too cold to get most seeds to sprout.

So why don't I simply place all of my flats of newly sown seeds on a sunny windowsill as gardening books often recommend? Because we really only have two windowsills, and those are permanently claimed by the four indoor cats who, in their urgent and constant quest for heat, have an utter disregard for delicate containers of seeds. They will, without the slightest hesitation, send what could potentially bea few hundred pounds of lip-smacking, vine-ripened tomatoes crashing to the floor with one swish! of a space-making tail. Mentioning my unhappiness with this distressing practice to the cats is absolutely pointless, as they simply stare straight through me with a patented feline look that plainly says they could really care less because--as I have obviously forgotten--one, they do not eat tomatoes, and two, they do not have any lips.

I know, I know, it all gets very confusing. And I haven't even mentioned the three-tier, flourscent-lighted, seedling-holding, A-frame-type contraption my husband built for me that is the size of half a room. Or the fact that each year I completely take over our tiny dining room with all of my seed starting paraphernalia.

This year I have managed to simplify things a bit. I've still taken over the dining room, but as soon as the containers of seeds are sown they go directly out to the greenhouse. During the day it is quite warm in there, but the temperature does drop down at night. So far, though, it seems to be working out alright.

Unfortunately my other garden plans are anything but simplifying. In a fit of snowstorm-and seed catalog-induced madness, I decided to greatly expand the herb and flower gardens this year and ordered over a hundred packets of perennial and annual flower and medicinal herb seeds. Many of these seeds need to be specially cold-treated first--some in the refrigerator, some in the freezer, and some outdoors--and all for different lengths of time.

I also decided to plant potatoes for the first time and ordered five different varieties. I didn't pay much attention to the space requirements, though, and I have now realized that I will be planting about 250 feet of potatoes. That sounds like an awful lot, especially for just the two of us.

My final new strategy will actually affect all of the gardening I do this year, for I have decided to plant, reap, and sow according to the phases and signs of the moon. Here's where the real trouble begins. I had heard before that seeds should be sown while the moon is increasing in size--or heading "upwards" and promoting above-ground growth--and that seedlings should be transplanted into the ground while the moon is decreasing in size, or heading "downwards" where root activity occurs.

This theory made sense to me, and so when a dear 83-year-old friend who spent many years on her own farm told me during a recent visit that planting by the moon does in fact work, I decided to give it a try. She even provided me with a copy of a special free calendar from the bank that outlines everything I need to know.

Back at the farm, I took one look at the calendar and quickly realized that this moon planting thing is a whole lot more complicated than the two simple rules I mentioned above. For the sake of those who have no idea what I have gotten myself into, I will attempt to explain it.

The basic idea is this: You plant above-ground bearing vegetables and flowering plants while the moon is increasing, and you plant root crops (though not onions) and bulbous flowering plants while the moon is decreasing. Simple enough. But then you start to read all the fine print, and planting according to the lunar calendar begins to seem a whole lot like trying to book an airline flight for those incredibly low rates you see advertised in the newspaper. I'm talking about the blackout dates. These are the periods when you are not allowed to fly (or plant). Ready?

Okay, first black out the entire fourth quarter of every month. Evidently the only allowable activities during this time are "turning sod, pulling weeds, and destroying noxious growths." Next, forget about doing anything on the first day of the new moon or on the days on which the moon changes quarters because those days are no good either. Then blackout every single Sunday during the entire year because "planting or grafting done on Sunday will probably not succeed, as this day is ruled by the sun, and therefore considered a dry and barren day."

This brings us to the signs of the zodiac. Apparently each of the twelve zodiac signs is governed by a part of the body and has certain traits, including wet or dry tendencies and barren or productive characteristics. These are important because every day the moon is in one of the twelve constellations, and if it happens to be in a dry and barren one you aren't supposed to plant anything.

My calendar from the bank explains all of these facts and many, many more, such as when to cut your hair, when to paint your car, when to hatch courageous chickens, and the best time to have an operation on your throat. It also lists the moon rise, moon set, sun rise, sun set, and ruling zodiac sign (and its corresponding body part) for every single day of the year. It's fascinating. It's also confusing as hell.

Determined to figure it all out, I grabbed seven different colored markers and sat down to chart out my gardening schedule for the month of April. I have no idea what will come of all this, but one thing is certain: minding the moonsigns totally limits when you can do anything besides mulch.

The way I figure it, April looks like this: the entire first week is useless as the moon will be in the fourth quarter. The first quarter begins on the 8th, with fruitful days falling on the 9th, 10th, 13th, and 14th. All four of those days are ruled by extra fruitful signs (the really really good days to plant), but the 13th is a Sunday, and the moon changes quarters on the 14th, so those two days are out. The second quarter begins on Monday the 15th which is another extra fruitful day. The 21st and 22nd are fruitful, too, but the moon changes quarters on the 22nd. The third quarter shapes up pretty well in April, with extra fruitful days on the 23rd and 24th and fruitful days on the 28th and 29th.

So how does all this relate to my planting? Here's my strategy for April: Start seeds for the designated "first quarter crops" (broccoli, celery, cucumbers, cress, endive, kolhrabi, lettuce, leeks, onions, and all flowers) on the 9th and 10th. Start the "second quarter crops" (beans, eggplant, melons, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes) on the 15th, and plant carrots, root parsley, celeriac, and as many of the 250 feet of potatoes as possible on the 23rd and 24th, finishing up on the 28th and 29th. There is no mention of when to set out seedlings in the garden, so I will go ahead and do that on the fruitful third quarter days as well.

This isn't the first time I have done something according to the lunar calendar. The couple who sold us our flock of sheep informed us that lambs' tails should never be docked when the moon is decreasing because the blood will have a tendency to drain down and out of the animal, and so Sunday the 20th, a doubly barren day in the second quarter, will be set aside for docking tails and castrating the male lambs.

All of this is, of course, assuming that it will not rain, freeze, or snow on the designated planting days, and that no farm emergencies requiring the entire day to deal with will occur. I'm definitely not going to hold my breath. I was already up the other night starting seeds until midnight (when I stopped for fear that the moon would move into a barren sign at 12:01). My husband tells me not to get so worked up about all this, and to just do things when I can. But now that I have discovered the barren days and the noxious fourth quarter, I know that planting anything during the blackout periods would only bring certain doom to my garden. Basically I am now completely paranoid. **

As you can see, we're already having quite a spring at Windridge. It's crazy and hectic and fun, but it does get a little overwhelming. I'm thinking that maybe next year we should just plant flax--on the correct moonsign day of course.

* Big Chip and Skinny Chip, as they came to be called (despite the fact that both of them are enormous) are 11 years old and doing just fine. They have incredibly sweet dispositions, still love to be pet and hugged (in fact they demand it), and have proven over the years to be quite useful to have around. Click here to find out why and to read a little more about them--and for one of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes.

** While I still do my paranoid best to mind the moonsigns in the garden, I have since discovered that things are even more complicated than what my free calendars have been telling me. I'm talking about an entire book devoted to the subject. Click here to read my review of Astrological Gardening: The Ancient Wisdom of Successful Planting & Harvesting by the Stars by Louise Riotte.

There are more stories where these came from. I'll post announcements on Farmgirl Fare and In My Kitchen Garden when the next one is up.

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