Sometimes kids are right

Mrs. Ed and I have a son. Matt, a recent college graduate, is in Washington, D.C. pursuing his dream of a career in journalism. He is pretty good at it and makes his parents proud.

Matthew was always pretty sharp, even as a kid. For a brief time, I could get him to do things by saying stuff like, “I bet you can’t do that,” or, “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that.” He caught onto the reverse psychology technique pretty fast. He wasn’t real old when his analytical wisdom was revealed to me.

It was spring, the snow recently melted and frost coming out of the ground. There was a part of the pasture that was flooded, the water held from draining by a 20-foot strip of high ground. I thought if I dig a trench from one side to the other I would improve the pasture. I considered my options. I could use the tractor and scoop the dirt out with the loader. I dismissed that idea based on previous experience of driving the tractor on soft ground particularly when the frost breaks up. Trust me, it wasn’t pretty.

Ah ha! I thought, I’ll use the horses. I had just finished planting the potatoes and had used a tool called a hiller to create a mound of dirt for the potatoes to grow in. The hiller made a nice trench in the sandy garden, why wouldn’t it work in the swamp? Surely the horses wouldn’t get stuck. I shared my plan with Matt. “I bet you could drive the horses while I steered the hiller.” “No thanks Dad, you’re on your own on this one.”

I harnessed my A team, Patsy and Kate, put the hiller on a little sled and started off down the driveway. As I was leaving Matt, who noticed I had put on my high water boots, offered some advice. “Dad, be careful. You know that swamp can suck the boots off a man.” I laughed to myself, what could possibly go wrong?

I headed down Foss Road to the swamp, unloaded the hiller, attached the evener and proceeded to drive the horses into position. A wiser teamster my have aborted the mission right there, but not me. The horses, facing a pool of muddy ice water, started doing the “dance” otherwise known as “happy feet.”

“Easy girls, easy,” I said in my “stay calm” voice. They settled down, allowing me to tie the ends of the lines together.

I probably need to explain this. Using any implement like a walking plow or tiller requires at least three or four hands. When getting started it usually works best to have two people, one on the lines, the other on the handles. The next best thing is to tie the lines together and loop them behind your back. Properly adjusted, the teamster can drive the horses by leaning back or forward. Improperly adjusted, bad things can happen especially if the horses get excited.

I secured the lines behind my back and steadied the hiller with my arms. Feeling the lines tighten, the girls began the happy dance. I think they even turned their heads to look at me as if saying “Are you sure about this”? I was ready. Soon the water would be rushing towards the nearby creek and the swamp reclaimed.

I sent the girls a kiss, followed by a firm “Giddy up.” The obedient horses lurched forward. The lines tightened across my back. “Too tight,” I thought as the hiller’s shovel dove into the soft earth. I tightened my grip on the handles, trying desperately to level it out. About that time I became acutely aware of my boots. I had not realized how far they had sunk into the mud while I was getting set. Forward motion against suction. Something had to give.

In hindsight, it was like slow motion. The shovel went straight down sending me straight up and out of my boots. Then she shifted, slowly over on its side taking me down, down into the mud. I had to make a split second decision. Holler whoa and get the girls stopped or keep my mouth shut and the mud out. Swamp mud tastes as bad as it smells, trust me.

Swinging sharply to the right, the horses stopped when they reached solid ground. They turned and looked at me. I’m glad horses don’t express opinions or say “I told you so.” I struggled to right myself and the hiller. There was an eerie silence, until the clump of mud fell out of my ear. I looked back at the swamp. The only change was a 12-foot imprint that looked a lot like me. My boots had disappeared, swallowed up by the mire.

Usually I follow the old adage, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Not this time. The horses and I headed home. Wouldn’t you know it, as I was limping down Foss road, covered in thick black mud, my neighbor comes by. “Hey Ed, what the heck happened to you?”

I unharnessed the horses and sent them out to pasture. Heading up to the house, Mrs. Ed came out of the house. “So how did that go?”

“Ha ha,” I said, “I need to take a shower.”

“Don’t think so,” she said, and proceeded to hose me off with the garden hose.

Matt is a long way from the Range, but we rest easy knowing he has down to earth wisdom and will avoid mud as he navigates the nation’s capital.

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A pretty good teenage teamster, Matt driving Barney and Charlie at the Forest History Center.

Santa’s haulers

There is nothing quite as good as an old fashioned Iron Range pot luck. Mrs Ed and I were invited to one put on by the Cherry Township Recreation Board for the volunteers who helped with the Christmas program. On the way home I reflected on the day.

T’was the 16 of December and all across the Range, came rumors of something very very strange.

People were talking and kids were listening, about a soon to be visitor to the Iron Range.

Someone said it was the tooth fairy and that he would be stopping in Cherry.

Another person said it was the Grinch, but another said he would be too scary.

At quarter past three, they came with a thud. There was Mr. Ed, with his horses, Mick and Bud.

Across the field, red wagon in toe, bouncing over the bumps, in the snow.

In the back of the wagon, a big jolly fellow sat, with a red and white suit and a great big furry hat.

The children came running to see, this amazing site, as we rounded the tree.

Whoa Mick, whoa Bud shouted Mr. Ed. They came to a stop in front of the fire hall, all painted in red.

Santa, with his big bag of toys, went inside to dazzle all the little girls and boys.

Mick, Bud and I, we just sat, waiting for the big fellow, to come back.

The children came out to to meet the boys. They wanted them to show them their new toys.

One little fellow, not a bit shy, looked at the horses and then back at me,

asked in a big voice, “hey mister, how did you get them to fly?”

20130113-210339.jpg Santa Express

A favorite old timer story

I like to hang around “old timers” (people with more years of experience with draft horses than myself) because I always seem to learn something new and helpful. Most of the old timers I have encountered are the quiet type, willing to share their knowledge if you take the time to ask their advice and to listen.

I met Chet Mann several years ago through the North Star Draft Horse Association. Chet had been around horses all his life. He was a guy you could buy a horse from with total confidence. I really enjoyed him at club field days and when we did logging demonstrations at the Forest History Center. When I was doing something, harnessing, hitching, driving and noticed Chet watching me, I’d stop and ask, “So what do you think?” Chet never made me feel stupid even if what I was doing was. He’d say “Well, if it was me, I’d do it this way,” and proceed to advise me or help me make adjustments.

Chet and I were talking about rank horses one day. A rank horse has discipline issues, is unpredictable and will test you just because he can. It is an animal that can sense fear and takes full advantage of inexperience. I think real old timers secretly like the challenge. I asked “What was your worst experience with rank horses?”

Chet told me about a team he once owned that was very spirited and was constantly testing him. “I had the team at an event where there were a lot of people around. Something spooked them, and they started gathering up.” (Gathering up is when horses tense up just before bolting. It is the split second the teamster has to get set in hopes of averting a disaster). ” Just as I grabbed the lines, the horses reared up in the air.”

Chet had my attention as I imagined the situation. Two broncos, terror in their eyes, front hoofs flailing in the air, crowd scattering in panic, a teamster’s worst nightmare.

Chet paused for what seemed like a long time. I couldn’t stand it. “So what did you do?” He looked at me and with a straight face, and in a calm voice he said, “I let them down easy.”

Then he smiled.

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Chet Mann on the lines driving Queen and Lady at the Forest History Center. I miss him.

Payback time

A few years ago they got me with a good one. At that time I owned three oxen — Norman, Turk and Star. I would take them to the farm show at Blackberry. We would do a little plowing, but mostly I would bring them for people to see. They weighed over a ton each and had impressive horns. It was mid afternoon when a couple of draft horse club members invited me to go with them to get a piece of pie. I like pie, and the Blackberry ladies make some really good ones.

On the way back from the pie break someone came running towards me from the horse barn.”Ed come quick, there’s something wrong with your ox!”

When someone says there’s something wrong with your ox, all kinds of things go through your mind. Did he fall over and can’t get up? Did he jump the fence and run away? And, heaven forbid, did he drop over dead? By the time I get to the barn I am trying to figure out how to discretely remove a dead 2200-pound ox. Entering the barn I witnessed several people standing in front of Star’s pen. They were pointing and laughing. I swallowed hard and walked over to the pen.

There, with a crowd in hysterics, stood Star. Someone with the initials BC assisted by DB had transformed my dignified, gentle Star into a “Moose Ox” by duct taping a set of moose horns to his horns. By this time everyone was looking at me to see my reaction. Good one, they really got me.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I visited Johnson’s Pen and Perch website. Libby has a picture of my Moose Ox. It made me laugh all over again.

Funny, one of the conspirators was my friend Duane. This morning I was looking through the pictures I took yesterday and discovered something. Here is the picture. See if you can figure it out.

20130111-174702.jpg. Duke is the right hand horse, Bud, the left.

The horses are nervous tonight

The horses were nervous tonight. The wind shifted this afternoon. An east wind is not the norm, it usually means something is brewing. Horses seem to sense when storms are coming. A couple days before a cold snap, their appetites spike. They don’t like the wind and move around more than usual. I am a little anxious too. Maybe it is because my arthritis is acting up but more likely it is because I watched the Weather Channel and learned about “Gandolf” a blizzard heading this direction. Honestly I can’t take a blizzard named after a wizard seriously. Old man winter storms should be called manly names like Bruce, Mike or Brutus. By using manly names we could use them again like Brutus Jr. A real “son of a blizzard”

I spent the week building a new sleigh with my buddy Duane. This project actually began about two years ago when the North Star Draft Horse Association did its first Winter Fun Fest at the Blackberry Tractor club show grounds. Club members donate their horses and time to give sleigh rides. This year the event is February 23. Last year club member Sam Yoder donated a large bobsled to Blackberry for the event. The sled was a fixer-upper. Club president and pretty good handy man, Duane Barrow, accepted the challenge. With some financial help from the tractor club to buy some of the wood and some red oak lumber sawn on the tractor club’s sawmill, Duane made up his mind to “get-er-done”.

We spent the week in his garage putting it together. Duane and I work well together because neither of us really has a plan. We look at our materials and make the rest up as we move forward. A week or two ago we finished a new sleigh at my place. Bolstered by that project we set out to make this one even better. Mine is 15 feet long. This one is 16 feet. Mine has one step. This one has three. Duane is already talking about the next one and what we should do to make it bigger and better.

The moment of truth came at 2:09 today when we hooked Bud and Duke, his awesome team of Belgium horses to the sled. After a quick start out of the garage, we headed out for the maiden voyage of the “Yoder Express”. Duane has a beautiful network of trails through the woods behind his house. The sun was warm, snow sticky, and the trails in perfect condition. As we wound through the woods we reflected on the moment and on horses and how they had been instrumental in the history of our forests. The sun was low on the horizon when we put the horses away. It was a good week with a satisfying ending.

Bring on the storm. Horses have it figured out. The don’t run and hide. They simply lower their heads and point their butts into the wind. Take that Gandolf!

20130110-204024.jpg One handsome sleigh

20130110-204146.jpg. Bud and Duke and their proud owner Duane Barrow

Every buddy needs a buddy

I believe everyone needs someone to do stuff with. It’s easy enough to get into trouble by yourself, but it’s much more fun when you have a partner in crime. This is true for kids and for retired guys. It doesn’t usually include spouses as they are prone to say “You want to do what?” Not “What the heck, let’s give it a try.”

The best buddy is someone you have a shared passion with. My passion is draft horses. I gravitate toward other draft horse enthusiasts, usually the old timers. Old timers are hard to impress. Tell them what you did or what you are thinking about doing, and they say, “Been there, done that.”

Mr. Ed’s Farm has been a personal dream for many years. The dream started to come to life when I shared the idea with my buddy Duane. He has a few years on me and a much more colorful biography. He grew up on a farm in rural Effie, Minnesota. As a youth, he not only drove draft horses, he worked the rodeo. He knows a lot about horses. What he doesn’t know is fear. He is not exactly fearless but isn’t afraid to try anything.

A few years ago, not long after we met, I had an opportunity to test that theory. It was a Thursday night in January. The weather had been unusually cold. I got a call. Can you bring your horses up to Ely on Saturday and help us harvest ice? Never having done anything like that, I called Duane. “Hey Duane, I got a deal for you. Do you want to go north of Ely on Saturday to haul ice up a hill from the lake to the icehouse? I checked the weather forecast. The daytime high is expected to be 20 below.”

“Sounds like fun,” he said without hesitation.

The day turned out to be very interesting and fun dispute the temperature never getting above 24 below. We used my horses Bud and Mick on Duane’s sled. The ice was cut into cubes with hand saws and bounced out of the water before being loaded on the sled. The steep climb up the bank tested the limits of the horses. I was worried, Duane never had a doubt they could do it.

With the extreme temperature, everyone was dressed in layers with as little exposed skin as possible. At one point late in the afternoon I looked at Duane and broke out laughing. He was wearing one of those stocking face-mask caps. The eye, nose and mouth openings were covered with frost. He was standing by the horses who had icicles hanging from their chins. Duane looked at me and said with a grin, ” You know it’s cold when your nose freezes shut!”

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A couple of my friends savoring the moment.

Sheep shearing day January 26

We shear the sheep once a year, usually in January. Why, people ask, do you shear off their wool in the winter? Don’t they freeze? Traditionally sheep are shorn in the spring before they are turned out to pasture to have their lambs. This makes them more comfortable and eliminates problems with flies laying eggs in soiled wool.

I have the sheep shorn in January about two weeks before lambing. Most breeds of sheep are seasonal breeders. I remove the rams no later than July 15 and put them back in about September 15th for winter lambing. Gestation is five months.

The first lambs usually arrive the second week of February. By shearing the ewes two weeks before they lamb and moving them into an insulated lambing barn,the lambs get a better start. The first thing I do is put down a lot of straw. The sheep eat some but mostly lay on it and pack it down. It doesn’t take long for the manure pack to begin generating heat. It’s a natural form of in-floor heat. The ewes cuddle together to keep warm. When the lambs are born they cuddle up to their moms. If the moms had long wool they would be warm but the lambs couldn’t snuggle up. Also, within minutes of being born, the lambs try to nurse. Shorn ewes do not have wool tags that the lambs could mistake for a teat. It gives them a better chance of surviving if they get milk right away.

Lambs are usually ready to be weaned in about two months. Weaning time is stressful for the lambs. I usually move the ewes out of the lambing barn and leave the lambs in their familiar surroundings. Also I don’t like to send lambs out to pasture with the ewes as we have coyotes who roam the nearby woods. They don’t seem to bother the big sheep but won’t hesitate to take a small lamb.

Finally I like winter lambing because it makes me think of spring. Sure I am frequently in the barn in the middle of a subzero night assisting a mom giving birth or helping a wobbly lamb start nursing. More than once I have brought a struggling lamb into the house to get it warmed up.

It’s all part of farming. Shearing day signals the beginning of a new season. Curious? Contact me for details. Mr. Ed

20130108-205014.jpg These white face sheep are North Country Border Cheviots.

Ever wonder if things may have turned out differently?

Mrs Ed and I left the big city to seek our fortune on the Iron Range in 1981. The economy was in a free fall, unemployment on the Range rapidly rising with the downsizing of the steel industry. Our Twin Cities friends questioned our sanity for “heading up north.”

In 1985, we purchased the farm, in the midst of the national farm crisis. Coming from a family with many members in the farming business, I wondered what they meant when they said “So you bought the farm? Good luck with that…”

Shortly after taking the agricultural leap, I had what could have been a destiny-changing conversation with my brother Bill. A couple of years older than me, I always considered him a pretty smart guy. That was confirmed by some of my teachers who had had Bill in their class.

“Interesting,” they said — about me. “His brother was smart.”

Bill had gone to graduate school to become a “futurist,” so I listened to his ideas on achieving success with keen interest.

Bill said, “So you bought a farm on the Iron Range, and you are planning on raising sheep. Have you considered grazing the sheep on the mine dumps and raising steel wool?”

I thought to myself,”I bet no one has ever thought of that.”

There is a saying “You are what you eat.” Sheep are already bred to raise wool. By simply changing their diet, I could be on my way to a profitable farming operation.

Mrs Ed was a little less optimistic. “You need to make a list of the pros and cons.” So I did.

On the positive side:
1. There are lots more uses for steel wool than plain old wool for clothing.

2. Coyote predation would be curtailed. Just thinking about sinking teeth into steel wool sends chills down my back.

3. Expensive wolven wire fences could be replaced with cheap electric ones. Real wool is an insulator and sheep don’t even know the fence is hot. A little steel on steel would get their respect.

4. A normal shepherd catches a sheep with a shepherds hook. A 200-pound sheep running at full tilt can give you quite a ride. Catching could be made easy with a strong magnet on the end of a winch suspended from the rafters. Simply put some grain under the magnet, when the sheep comes to eat, haul her up!

Mrs. Ed helped with the con side.
1. “How are you going to keep them from getting rusty?” “Dip them in cider vinegar.” I replied. “That’s a lot of vinegar,” she said.

2. How are you going to shear them? “Use a tin snips.” “Pretty slow, don’t you think”?

3. “Use a shear for cutting metal.” “What about sparks catching the straw on fire?”

4. ” I know,” I said, recalling an episode of my mentor, public television’s renowned handyman Red Green, “I’ll use an acetylene torch!” At that point, she just rolled her eyes and walked away.

True, sheep are not the brightest barnyard animal but I suppose even they might get more than a little nervous when when you light up the torch and put on the goggles. With the tipping of the scales toward the con side, I was forced to forgo this chance at prosperity and slid the idea to the back burner.

For some reason I was reminded of this today when I stopped at Lowes Hardware Store. Have you seen the price of steel wool lately? Maybe if I got some investors…

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Prototype of the new breed of sheep “The Steelie”.

The animals are messing with Mr. Ed

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Lucile with that innocent look.

It’s Sunday on Mr. Ed’s Farm. Morning chores went OK. The Jersey boys made another break for it when I opened their gate, slipping past me to run up and down the hay bales. I guess it’s time to start their formal training.

The neighbor girls, Dallas and Michele — AKA DJ and Bell — came over at noon. They are 8 and 9 years old and have been great helpers and provide inspiration for Mr. Ed’s Farm. Good neighbors are worth their weight in gold, and we really appreciate ours.

Bright sunshine, sparkling snow were too much to keep us inside. All Mrs Ed had to say was, “Gee, wouldn’t it be a nice day for a sleigh ride?” and I was out the door. With eight horses to choose from, sometimes it is hard to decide who to harness up. That question was answered when I opened the barn door. Sam and Sue were the first ones in. I harnessed up, put on the bells and off we went. We have a new sleigh and —thanks to the girls dad, Jeramy, and his bobcat — several new trails.

Feeling good from the day, I lingered in the barn tonight. Sitting on the hay bales with the puppies gathered around, I watched and listened to the animals. After a few minutes I think they forgot I was there and started telling Mr. Ed jokes.

Why does Mr Ed write so messy? Because he uses a pig pen!

Why did the cow jump over the moon? Because Mr. Ed has cold hands.

Why did Mr. Ed take his horses to the wedding chapel? Because he wanted them to get hitched.

Why did the chickens get in Mr. Ed’s wagon? They wanted him to pull it.

How does Mr. Ed give his sheep a bath? In Woolite.

How many sheep does Mr. Ed have? He doesn’t know because every time he tries to count them he falls asleep.

What did Mr. Ed say to the sad rabbit? Have a hoppy day.

Mr Ed told the pigs a secret but all the animals knew it. Why? Because they squealed on him.

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Mr Ed.
Mr. Ed who?
Mr. Ed, it’s time to be fed!

Very funny, guys. I get no respect.

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Cody and Bud “pick me, pick me”

It’s Always Something……

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Joe and Vinnie, the Jersey Boys

Dad had a saying he liked to use whenever the unexpected happened on the farm. We heard it a lot as the unexpected was closer to the norm on our farm. For the simple one or two surprises, he’d say “Well, it’s always something!” For the big ones — like when the cows got out in the corn, the tractor broke down and the hay got rained on — he’d say, “Well, if it’s not one thing, it’s six!”

I thought of him last night when I almost got done in by the unexpected. I do evening chores at dusk, and all the animals know this and are quick to let me know if I am late. Rosie, the mother of four very excitable border collie pups, always leads the way. Border collies are an incredibly smart, intense breed of herding dogs. On Mr Ed’s Farm, they are the barnyard monitors, and they believe it is their duty to keep everyone else in line.

Last night I headed for the Morton Barn, the largest barn with most of the animals including the sheep, goats, llama, a dozen rogue chickens, a few shy barn cats and a pair of three-month-old calves named Vinnie and Joe.

Rosie and the puppies waited anxiously for me to open the door so they could could go ahead of me to check everything out. The instant I cracked open the door they rushed in, disappearing into the darkness. Before I could snap on the light all heck broke loose. Sheep baaing, chickens cackling, dogs barking and snarling. Before I could utter the words “What the —- “, two brown figures came charging out the door. The Jersey boys had busted out of their pen! Seeing the light, they decided to make a break for freedom.

With a pack of border collies in hot pursuit, they raced across the yard toward the driveway. They may have made it too, if it had not been for that patch of ice. No one had told the juvenile escapees about “the wipe out”. Whoosh, down they went like a professional motorcyclist laying down his bike on a slick road. Time stopped for a brief moment as I and the dogs stared at the Jersey boys in their comical positions. Seconds later they popped up, tails flying through the air they headed off full speed in another direction.

The freedom run went on for another ten minutes or so back an forth across the yard, around the corner to the horse pasture where the eight large draft horses had gathered to see what the commotion was all about. When the horses saw two brown figures racing toward them, I think one of them yelled “Bear!” as they instantaneously snorted and wheeled around, heading at a full gallop for the far side of the pasture.

I did what a farmer must do when the animals go wild. I rattled the feed bucket and waited. It wasn’t long before the Jersey Boys decided to forgo freedom for supper and followed me back to their pen.

With the excitement over, I investigated the root cause of the problem. As usual, farmer error. I had secured the gate with a piece of baling twine which the boys had chewed through. Desperate times require serious action. As any responsible farmer would do, I got a piece of haywire and fashioned a hook using my pliers which I keep in that special pocket in my bibs. The Jersey boys will have to do better next time to get the best of Mr. Ed.

Hey, anyone seen my pliers? It’s always something!

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Puppies in training waiting for Mr. Ed.