December 23, 2000
Dear Friends and Family –
I hope this holiday season finds you happy and healthy. I’d love to hear from all of you and find out how your lives are progressing. My annual attempt to keep you informed on what’s been happening in my life over the past twelve months is as long-winded as usual, but I hope you’ll read to the end anyway. While the year 2000 was the usual mixture of triumphs and disasters, the triumphs seemed to outweigh the disasters, for the most part……
A few snowstorms in January may have cut us off from the outside world, but they also gave us a good excuse for a sledding party.
In late February lambing season at Touchstone Farm got off to a good start. We had a record number of 27 lambs born in the space of three weeks. While that may sound impressive, we were hoping for around 35 bouncing little lambies. Our ultimate goal is to have between 150 and 200 lambs born each year at the farm – so we’ve got a long way to go.
In March I spent my 40th birthday wrestling sheep in our annual shearing extravaganza. My aching bones afterwards made me realize that I a, now indeed, middle-aged. This year was the first in which we actually had enough sheep (and sheep that were clean enough) to save their fleeces. Friends Ann Marie Pulsch and Denise Becker worked full time all day “skirting” fleeces so that they could be sent to Vermont to be spun into yarn. We were all slightly surprised when the yarn came back looking fantastic. Even the people at the Woolen mill were impressed with the quality of the wool, so it looks like we’ll be making yarn and raw fleeces regular farm products from now on. We’ve only got a few skeins left so let us know if you want some.
In April we had our annual tailgate party at the local hunt’s point-to-point races. Steve’s colleagues from NIH mixed well with World Bank types, friends from DC, and local country folk. Spring was busting out all over everywhere you turned. The daffodils, fritillaria, wood hyacinths, goslings, lambs, chicks and other sure signs of the season caused one guest (Bruce Cogill) to remark, “such fecundity!” (what erudite friends we have).
May saw Touchstone Farm join the “new economy” with the launching of our farm website. While we’ve most definitely got an “old economy” product, and the rest of the internet economy is sinking fast, we’ve actually been able to market more than half our lambs this year through the web.
When June arrived, spring showers refused to give way to summer heat. In fact, for the first summer in three years we had adequate rain. Actually, we had more than adequate rain. It rained almost every day from June to September. The rain, clouds, and cool temperatures made it feel more like England than Virginia this summer, but we didn’t complain a bit. After three years of drought the pastures finally came in thick and lush, and garden plants grew like mad. For the first time in two summers we never had to lug water to parched plants barely clinging to life, and it was very gratifying to see such luxurious greenery.
In July my sister Jennifer finally supplied us with a reason to visit Europe more frequently, with the birth of our first German niece, Helene, but it wasn’t until August that we finally found time to get away from the farm for a few weeks to check out the new little Kraut.
September was a quiet month, spent mostly in catching up with things after being away from the farm in August, as well as stacking hay and doing other early fall chores such as delivering lamb to all our customers. Late September and early October are some of the most beautiful times at the farm, when the leaves start to turn colors and the nights get cooler. It’s
generally the best time to visit, as we’re not too busy doing farm stuff (so please plan your visits accordingly for next year!). I organized the (16th!) annual mountain climb up Old Rag Mountain on October 14th. Some of these guys are getting a bit long in the tooth, but they all made it to the top in one piece.
With the end of Steve’s fellowship at NIH in October, there was no longer any reason to keep his apartment in DC, so we packed up his stuff and moved it all out to the farm. It gets a bit “cozy” at times, but with both of us at the farm full-time, we’re getting a lot more done around here, and we may even get the house built one of these days. In between writing projects for Washington think tanks, Steve has been dividing his time between losing money on the stock market and managing the farm. Also in late October Alan’s sister-in-law Audrey took a few moments out of her busy schedule to give me a new nephew Lukas.
The biggest tragedy of the year occurred one night in late October. Coming home late one night from DC we heard a dog yapping out in the pasture. Despite a powerful flashlight, the dense fog that night made it difficult to see, but it soon was apparent that a dog had been able to get over or under our electric fence and wreak havoc on our sheep flock. The scene was not a pretty one, and it wasn’t until 3:30 a.m. that we were able to finally assess all the carnage. We had three dead and mutilated sheep, three mortally wounded, and eight with varying degrees of injuries. The next several days were pretty awful, and were spent nursing the wounded, burying the dead, running up enormous vet bills, and reinforcing our perimeter fence. In the end we lost our best ram, and seven of our best ewes. Not a happy time.
As a result of the sheep attack we now have some added “protection” around the farm. Within a few days we bought a Winchester 30/30 rifle to deal with errant dogs and also as a means to add some venison steaks to our diet. Hunting season is almost over and Bambi’s mother still hasn’t come within rifle range, but we keep hoping.
Another form of protection arrived a week later in the form of Phoebe the guard donkey. Donkeys supposedly have an innate hatred of canines and will bite and kick any that come near them. As a result, they make excellent guard animals for sheep flocks (or so we’re told). We decided to give one a try, and visited a local donkey herd. We picked out a nice two year old “jenny” (males are called “jacks,” as in “you big jack*ss”). Despite having had only minimal human contact, Phoebe has settled into life at the farm fairly quickly. She’s extremely friendly with people and has already learned to accept a halter and lead. Perhaps in time she might even be willing to give donkey rides. In the meantime, we’ve discovered that she’s about 5 months pregnant, and will foal in late May or early June.
The donkey, however, was just the beginning of a mini-critter explosion here at the farm. Within a week after Phoebe’s arrival, Juno the kitten showed up in time for Steve’s birthday on November 11th. Juno is, without a doubt, the cutest kitten in the history of the universe. Unfortunately, she knows it.
A few weeks after Juno arrived, we found ourselves checking out the chickens at the Virginia Poultry Association show (doesn’t everybody?). The fact that we have way
too many chickens already somehow didn’t prevent Steve from coming home with a pair of black Cochin bantams, who were promptly christened Victoria and Albert.
This December I find myself coming to the end of a year-long process to buy my next-door neighbor’s farm. A few days after Christmas Touchstone Farm will almost quadruple in size – from 25 acres to 94.5 acres and we will now finally have a barn (well, actually two barns, a house, an old sawmill, a gate house, and a 2 acre pond). While it may sound impressive, everything is basically falling apart, and the buildings are more liabilities than assets at this point. However, the added acreage will allow us to increase the size of our flock and, we hope, get to the point where the sheep can help pay the mortgage.
So that’s been my year – lots of fun times, hard work, and a few set-backs, but, on balance, life is good, and I’m enjoying it to the fullest. I consider myself lucky to have you in my life, and I hope you all have a terrific Christmas and a great celebration at the dawn of a new millennium.