Mom and I made Cinder into 75 pounds of Merguez on Friday.
Our culture draws some analogies between sausagemaking and politics. Making this sausage was more pleasant than politics has been of late. The rich, red meat flecked with occasional bright green fresh herbs melded with creamy light-pink fat looked much more appetizing than you might suppose.
I knew it would be a big job, but I didn’t expect it to take from 7am until 4:30 pm, with no breaks. When I arrived, Josh was already setting out my ingredients and coordinating my day. Josh is one of the managers of the Mad River Food Hub, and he showed me how to chop the pork fatback, prepare the spices, and use the machinery. Once the sausage was mixed and ready to fill, we fried up a little of the meat. It was garlicky and delicious!
Soon, Mom arrived and we were ready to stuff the links. It’s harder than it looks to do it well. Too much meat, and the casing will rupture and you’ll have a mess and a hassle. Underfill, and you’ll have long expanses of empty collagen and sad, empty-feeling sausages! While we were monitoring the fill rate, we also needed to monitor internal temperatures to keep everything below 40 degrees. Moving meat in and out of refrigerators was a bigger part of this process than I initially envisioned.
In the middle of the day, I got a call that the sheep had escaped! Fortunately, Matt was available to come to the rescue, but the sheep gave him a lot of trouble going back in. The Doctor really likes to push boundaries, and we’ve learned that one of our fence chargers needs a new rechargeable battery and that he’s happy to stick his nose through any fence gap to get it just a little wider until it pops open. At least he’s keeping me honest about the quality of my fencing jobs.
Mom and I worked straight through lunch and all the way until 4:30. We were pretty wiped at that point, so we dragged ourselves home. Feeling that I owed both Mom and Matt a debt of gratitude for their sheep-chasing and sausage-stuffing efforts, I took them out to our favorite local restaurant.
This is a post I recently read on a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I get a lot of “I can’t believe you eat them!” attitudes from people I meet around here, and it feels tiring. I’m interested in what you think of this blog post, which the writer was so gracious as to let me repost:
Lately I’ve heard of negative visitor reactions to historic (and sustainable but open to the public) farm sites in regards to the animals they keep. It seems not everyone is comfortable with animals on farms becoming food or with the processes that turn these animals into food. Admittedly, it’s easy to dismiss their reactions with: “Where do they think their burger comes from?” or some other retort. These people, though, are often engaged and vocal citizens who make their feelings known to large groups of like minded individuals who will take issue with your practices on a large-scale and very public level. They are also our visitors and we exist to educate them.
And educate them we must.
Here’s a story: a few years back when my son was young enough for “playdates” I was fixing him and his friend a snack. I asked his friend Josh (name changed to…
After an escape and a few other instances of naughtiness, primarily instigated by The Doctor, I gave in. Knowing a bit about sheep psychology, I made a guess: if I put the BFLs with the larger flock, they would be more inclined to stay put because the larger flock doesn’t pressure the fence. After a few hours of intensive bum-sniffing and then a few days of not associating with each other, team Bluefaced and team more-or-less-Cormo have concluded that they can play nicely. The Doctor has become something of a leader, though Peggy is still skeptical that this young upstart could have anything valuable to contribute to *her* flock.
While the Doctor has learned that being fenced in is okay, Little Moose and Fred have gleaned from their fellow sheep that Matt and I are not as vicious and horrible as they initially feared. Little Moose doesn’t flee anymore, and Fred will even approach for a hand-sniff. Petting is still forbidden at the moment, but time and some grain should help that.
Here are some pictures of our pasture paradise:
We had a little rain over the past week, and the Bluefaced Leicesters are showing off their amazing wool.
It’s been four days since Beechtree’s Outlander (whom we’re calling the 4th Doctor after his long, dark, shaggy locks), Pitchfork 926 (Fred) and Pitchfork 882 (Little Moose) moved into the barn. The grade Cormos are out in the fields, grazing.
The process of bringing home new sheep is like meeting new friends. Right off the bat, it’s clear that The Doctor is a relaxed and confident guy. He boldly approached and sniffed Matt and I as we sat with the flock the second evening after he arrived. I’ve noticed that he likes to quietly walk behind me as I distribute hay, but he has not yet shown even a tidbit of aggression towards humans.
Lambs, on the other hand….he certainly doesn’t like those guys that much (until we led them away for halter-training, that is – then he missed them terribly!). The Doctor butts the lambs away from the hay at almost every opportunity and makes it nearly impossible to feed them grain. I keep finding solutions that work for one day, but then he figures out my trick the second time and gets more than his share.
Fred and Little Moose haven’t relaxed and shown their true colors yet. I am confident, though, that a little grain and some TLC will help them calm down and relax.
I hate to admit it, but the difference in physical quality between these sheep and my Cormo X sheep is really astounding. When Mom and I picked out the ewe, we were impressed with how hard it actually was to tell the ewes in the pen apart. They were almost completely uniform in size and appearance. Uniformity makes flock improvement much easier. In my Cormo cross flock, I have long sheep, short-bodied sheep, tall sheep, stout sheep, lean sheep…it is impossible to choose a ram who can improve a trait in the offspring of one sheep without compromising a trait in the lambs of another. The BFLs won’t have that problem.
I also already adore them. Their gentle, deer-like looks and compliant natures already provide plenty of delight!
The BFLs will get their own website to focus on them and to market the flock. They will be known as the Dorward Flock, after my grandpa, and will have marketing to fit their own, special niche at Sheep and Pickle Farm.
We were up at 6:30 for a second day in a row (well, I get up at 5:45 almost every day, but still). We were out of the hotel before the continental breakfast was out, so we made do with IHOP. The traffic reached the festival before we did, but excellent parking management got us on the grounds and in the door rapidly. After orienting to the space and buying our teeshirts and totebags, we headed barn-ward to find our BFL farm contacts.
What we found were our sheep-sellers hastily clipping and tidying their charges. The Bluefaced Leicester National Show was scheduled from 9am-12pm, but Karakuls were still in the showring and no one had been called in yet. I introduced myself to Cindy and Margaret from Pitchfork Ranch, and then settled in to watch the show before Mom and I were able to find Brenda from Beechtree Farm. My sister, her husband and my little niece Cora were there with us, and we alternated between watching the show and looking at other exhibits. At the tender age of 11 months, Cora is skilled at making a “baa” sound and at joining in a round of applause. We sat in the stands as she moved from person to person, giving hugs and coo-ing and pulling the glasses off our faces.
In the stands, we encountered the grandmother of the gal whose ewes we are bringing home in two weeks! She raises her own sheep for wool and is also from New Hampshire, so there was plenty to chat about. We watched as the Chapin Family picked up several show ring victories in coveted categories, like Champion Ewe. Way to go!
Finally, with the show over, the sellers and I finally had a chance to talk. We met with Cindy and Margaret from Pitchfork and discussed their sheepraising program at length. I realized that I have anxiety about being perceived as uncommitted or likely to abandon my sheep-raising program. I may have overcompensated for that fear by talking about dairy goat genetics longer than anyone cares to hear about that topic. We noticed that they were selling an extra ewe. Reading her pedigree, I could see that she had just enough distance from most of my flock to be a good brood ewe and a possible source of a ram to keep my flock going without input for a while. I think I knew we were buying her when I felt along her back and could not palpate a spine. She had so much strong, hard meat and muscle there that her spine and her ribs were completely obscured. That is just not the case for my Cormo flock, even in their best condition. Selling Tim and Swift gave me just enough money to make the purchase possible.
We met with Brenda from Beechtree, as well. We didn’t find her until a little later, and didn’t have as much time to meet and greet. It was now nearing 2pm, two hours later than our ideal departure, and it was past time to plan the sheep loading. Mom and I had recognized a serious problem a few days before the festival. Due to crowds and rules at MSWF, you can’t just drive up to the sheep barns and load sheep. We would need to move them across open country. So we agreed that Brenda would bring the adult ram from her pen, and Margaret and I would meet her leading the ewe lamb, while Cindy fetched the littler ram lamb from their trailer nearby. Our silly sheep-moving group provided plenty of entertainment to the crowd as we passed. Like a ninja, Mom snuck the truck through a gate. It was great to see it waiting as we rounded the corner with the sheep in tow and Brenda joined us with Outlander, the adult ram!
Getting the ewe in the truck was a simple lift job. I got in the truck to hold her in, and I was handed Outlander’s lead rope while Brenda and Margaret each lifted a side. We made a really tricky task look easy. The last lamb was small and no trouble. I really owe a lot to Margaret, Cindy and Brenda for shlepping those sheep across the fairgrounds.
Again, the strong degree of organization at MSWF helped, as we were able to get the sheep cooling off on the road quickly. Mom drove the first half of the trip up I95. To cope with the crazy traffic that is far beyond what we’re used to, Mom and I began an index of reckless driving behaviors. We counted 25 incidents between the start of our drive in Friendship, Maryland and the New Jersey/New York border. We were well over 10 after Maryland and through Delaware, but the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway made solid contributions of scary incidents, near misses, and the crossing of multiple lanes through constantly shifting traffic. This incident happened just a short time before we reached Brunswick, and that earned a point for scary driving! I could not have withstood the kind of hair-raising driving that my mom handles. Crowded roads make me very anxious. I would have lost my mind handling the DC metro area. Thanks, Mom! The Adirondack Northway only amassed 7 points, but the speeders were really cruising on that road. The truck shook every time the sheep stood up and shuffled around, so we didn’t even try to keep up with the left lane traffic.
People give weird looks at rest stops when the back of your truck is bouncing and baa-ing. We never left the sheep completely unattended, so it was one coffee-break at a time.
We reached the Vermont border at 10pm, and I focused on staying alert all the way home to Williston at 11:30. There was no feeling like lying down after we unloaded the sheep in the barn and went to bed.
We started on Thursday with takeout and our master planning session. How would we load the sheep? How would we give them water? What time would we need to get to the festival? You can try to lay out a plan in 15 minute increments, but good luck carrying it off!
We left at 6:30 on Friday after a stout breakfast and enjoyed a pleasant drive through Westernmost Vermont and upper I-87 in New York. I confronted my timidness about traffic pretty well and drove all the way until the New Jersey border. After a brief orientation to driving a truck, my mother hopped right on the Garden State Parkway and soon the traffic was resetting my standards for intensity. I didn’t realize that while I-95 around Boston is busy, the DC area was worse. Much worse. Turn signals are pretty superfluous, apparently, and following distance just means not hitting anyone. Mom generously drove the length of Jersey, Delaware and into Maryland, where traffic and timing forced us to get straight on the metro to get to my sister’s place to change for our 5:30 dinner reservations. Traffic had made us late, and now we were rushing. Fortunately, the big derailment was all cleaned up and we went straight to my sister’s apartment, where she, my brother-in-law and my little niece awaited.
With all that my mom has done for me as a partner in this business, a nice dinner at a really fine restaurant seems like the very least I could do. We went to the Blue Duck Tavern. Here’s where I do my “country gal” routine: I grew up in a suburb. I now live in a suburb. I have been to cities. But I do not live a lifestyle of fine dining, Uber-riding, subway-navigating, or traffic-fighting. I was well out of my comfort zone and felt conspicuous and backwards. The food was really amazing, though, and Mom talked about relaxing for the first time in months. This trip was her well-earned vacation from caring for Grandma, who has dementia.
We returned to our hotel in Maryland and collapsed into bed, knowing that tomorrow would be a big day of travel, traffic, and logistics management.
The tough part about bringing in some new sheep is having to part with a few old friends.
When I reserved two new Bluefaced Leicester rams, I knew that Cinder’s days on my farm were numbered. As delightful as he is a companion, he doesn’t have the value of a purebred, registered ram with production records. I can’t risk a giant, powerful $200 ram injuring a taller but lighter $500 ram (or two!). I know that a small flock like mine gives a ram a two year window of work before he has too many relatives in the flock. Despite my connections to many New England shepherds, no one expressed any interest in buying Cinder (a fact which further justified my contention that Cormos do not have adequate breed support and a critical mass of interested breeders).
So what to do with Cinder? Even neutered, he would still be strong enough to continue to divert food from ewes. His wool, while beautiful, would not support his eating habits alone. So Phoebe, Todd, Matt and I loaded him into the truck on Thursday and took him to Vermont Livestock. Like his last move, Cinder is a very reluctant passenger. It took all four of us to push him up a plywood ramp while he counterbraced his legs. Of course, he obediently jumped right out of the truck when we reached the abbatoir. The handful of curious ewes waiting for him in an adjacent pen in the clean, brightly lit “waiting room” probably helped. On May 20th, I’ll be making merguez sausages with the hundred or so pounds of meat that I anticipate from Cinder. Let me know if you’d be interested in some!
Adding to the farewells, I parted with Timberdoodle and Swift yesterday. Due to thesize of my barn, I knew that I would need to pare the Cormo flock down to about six to fit the four ewes coming from New Hampshire in a few weeks. I thought through the ewe requests in my backlog, and remembered that one person was looking for two ewes for a starter flock. I knew that Timberdoodle would do much better on richer pastures. Who could go with her? Peggy is too old and potentially delicate to offer to a beginner. I would like her to live out her life with me. Bobolink and Meadowlark are too dear to me, and Valentine is not friendly enough for beginners. Swift. Her fleece is perfect, and she’s small and a delight to handle. Her little son went with her for additional companionship. Matt and I enjoyed coffee and a homemade-sourdough-bread snack with their wonderful new owners.
So the flock is looking a little sparse for a few days, but we’ll soon be back in business!