How to Evaluate a Potential Farm

I didn’t think it would be easy to find a farm.  But I didn’t think it would be this hard, either!

Matt and I have been looking at farms for over a year at this point.  We know that we need about 50 open acres, and we just want a modest house.  Our budget is lean, but we are willing to put up with some issues or inconveniences.  We want land without a barn, ideally, so we can avoid retrofitting old dairy properties.  Old wooden dairy barns are not easily adapted to a sheep operations.  The concrete floors with gutters, the low ceilings and any stanchions in place are more of a liability than an asset for a sheep operation.  Ever since I worked at Fat Toad Farm, I’ve been really in love with the open, bright feeling of a greenhouse-type building with plenty of clear space inside and have found that animals appreciate the dirt floors, sunlight, and copious fresh air.

Here are a few types of properties that we’ve found that are just a little off-the-mark for us.

– Nice small houses on too few acres.

– Nice small houses in the woods, on cliffs, or down by the river.

– Large, cumbersome, decrepit farmhouses on prime land.

– Trailers on tiny patches of prime land carved from a large, old dairy property.

– Plenty of gorgeous land but with a huge new mansion on it.

– Too much land with no house at all.

Even a look at Vermont Land Link, set up to help farmers find land, has a lot of huge properties and a lot of teeny properties, but no mid-scale ones.  8 acres is not very helpful to us, but 800 is more than we can sustain and manage.

We think, however, that we have found the right place, so stay tuned for updates!

The Problem with Sheep and Pickle

Matt and I are making steady progress in buying a property and establishing an enterprise on it.  We have 25 more sheep reserved, we have found a property we are hoping to buy, and we have much of what we need to begin making hay as soon as we see some promising-looking land.

 

There are a few less-tangible things that also need to change, though.  We are going to continue our wool enterprises, of course.  That a huge part of the joy of raising sheep!  But in order to sell 150 to 175 lambs each year, we are going to need to focus on selling meat a bit more intensively.   We need to sell it to people who don’t know us personally and don’t know what we do.

 

Having a farm called Sheep and Pickle Farm has been really fun, and most people seem to think it’s really cute.  But the invariable “Where’s the Pickles” questions plus the general weirdness of the name just won’t work in the broader marketplace.  I’ve been selling specialty food for about 7 years now, and I’m here to tell you that a good name and logo makes a real difference, especially in markets outside of Vermont.  Vermonters don’t care about slick marketing, but your label has to really yell to get attention in the crowded gourmet grocery stores of Boston.  Sheep and Pickle just won’t do that.  It also won’t tell people that our lamb is grass fed, that the breeds we raise are special, and about how much we care about the health and wellbeing of our flock.

 

So a new scale and a new venture demands that we rechristen this farm.  We are working on names that are unique, purposeful, wholesome, values-driven and just a bit cheeky.  Vermont has plenty of farm names that include trees (Maple Hill, Maple Grove, Maple Lane), adjective or verb – animal (Fat Toad, Fat Rooster, Does’ Leap, Turkey Hill).  Sheep puns are also pretty thoroughly claimed (Ewe and I, Ewe-who, Ewe Rock) and I want to make sure that our name would make sense if we were to branch out into raising turkeys or pigs.

 

We have a thought brewing right now, but I’m also open to other people’s ideas.  What catches your eye at the meat counter?  What colors stand out to you?  What annoys you about marketing?

 

I am eager to hear!

A New Breed

In my last post, I acknowledged the issue that has persisted in my flock for a number of years.  I haven’t succeeded in getting them to be as productive as they need to be, and I’ve concluded that I’ll be better off working with a pure breed intended for the kind of farm we are starting.

Instead of picking a breed and then searching for good breeders, I’ve done the opposite – I’ve picked a great breeder and concluded that the breed meets my needs.

Sue Johnson has been raising Border Leicesters since the mid 1970s.  She started with two 11 year old ewes, and told me that she’s been looking for straight backs and wide hips ever since.   It shows.  I decided to buy her ewes when I realized I couldn’t pick out any individuals in her flock that I *wouldn’t* happily own.  They are beautiful and uniform, and Sue’s complete commitment to quality shows in every aspect of these sheep – right down to the color of the horn on their feet and the color of the skin on their eyes.

So we are buying 14 of them.  Sue is reducing her flock significantly, and she has entrusted me to continue her progress.  It’s almost like I’m adopting her children or arranging a marriage – we’ve discussed values and opinions of various practices to reassure ourselves that we are making the right choices.  I’ll be calling Sue often to consult, especially when I’m trying to find rams in as limited a gene pool.  I’m very grateful that she has entrusted her life’s work to us.  I hope we can rise to the challenge!

*****

Regarding the continuing CL issue, we retested and got our results on Friday.   Bobolink, Moose and Marianne had the same results as before.  Amid some tears, Mary Lake dispatched Bobolink today.  She had a cyst forming, and we just couldn’t risk keeping her any longer.  Her meat is edible, but it’s small consolation for the loss of a really wonderful ewe who gave and raised twins as well as amazing gray fleece every year.  Happy trails, Bobolink.  I’m sorry to have lost you.

Off to the Auction

In my last post, I mentioned that we are actively gearing up to buy a farm, make our own hay, and raise sheep full-time.

Yesterday, we went to the Rene Fournier Equipment Auction to search for useful implements for our farm.

Picture a huge lot filled with new, used, and well-used equipment.  A few title-less cars, some random firehouse, a municipal bus, and tractors, rakes, tedders, mowers and other implements of all kinds.  Lawn tractors, skidsteers and chicken coops went up on the block.

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And by “block”, I mean they drove a truck around slowly, while a man with sign with a down-arrow that said “Selling this item” indicated various items for sale.  Irreparable items sold for scrap prices, generally.  Manure spreaders went high, and small balers were almost free for the taking.    Antique tractors like this one didn’t even make their reserve and went unsold.

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Finally, after hours of watching irrelevant items go by, our desired item finally came up for bid.

We had carefully scoped out the round-baler situation.  Several round-balers were for sale.  One was large and from a company (Gehl) that no longer offered parts for their now-defunct agricultural division.  The John Deere baler we saw seemed likely to go for a high price, and there were two Case balers that would work.  We also noticed a New Idea-brand baler with an electric mechanism for opening the baler hatch and dispensing a bale.  Our tractor only has one rear hydraulic attachment, so that would be a huge help to us – otherwise, we would have to get off the tractor each time to release a completed bale, or we would need to put a splitter on our hydraulic output, slowing both hydraulic operations somewhat.

Matt and I conferred and made a pact-  We knew that a baler on Craigslist would sell for about $4-5000, so anything under $3000 was good, and under $2500 was ideal.  We would bid up to $2500 and then read the lay of the land.  We were ready to come home with nothing, if need be.  We watched some handy limespreaders pass us by for not too much money.  Maybe next time, lime spreaders.

The New Idea baler came up first- not ideal for our strategy, as we would have no sense of competing buyer’s moods for buying round balers before jumping in on the one we would want the most.  But Matt had a secret weapon.  the New Idea had a control panel and a tangle of wires and tubes.  We considered whether the crowd here might opt for something similar…

Bidding started at $4000.  No takers.  It dipped to $3,000, 2,000, and then 1,000, when Matt opened bidding.  Another person we couldn’t see joined in, and they gradually rose until they reached about $2400.  Matt and the other man then slowly bid upwards in $50 increments until Matt bid $2650.  An anxious minute, and then the other bidder relented.  Suddenly, a crowd that had correctly identified us as newbies welcomed us and congratulated us on our purchase.   We watched the Case baler sell for more than $4000, and immediately felt some pride when other farmers said “You bought the better baler, and for less!”

Matt and I drove home happy.  He swapped out of his car and took my truck up to pick up the baler, proud and pleased to own a very vital piece of equipment for less than we had planned to spend.

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The Vet Again

The sheep have gone out to pasture, and we are still moving through the testing program.

The vet came on Friday, and we are keen to see how the test results compare to the last set.  Bobolink has a small lump on her chin that will be biopsied, and I am hoping and wishing that there are no new indications of infection in the flock.  We are not hopeful for Bobolink’s future with the flock.  We can’t risk having a CL cyst on premises that could threaten the lambs.  Consequently, she will have to be shipped.  I am heartbroken.

The more time I’ve had to settle with this disease and the changes I must make to my flock, the more clearly I am seeing a new and different direction.

Sadly, CL has been most concentrated in my small group of Cormo crossbreds.  With Bobolink leaving, I will have one Cormo and three BFL/Cormo ewes.  At this point, it is plain to me that I should accept all of the lessons that the Cormo sheep have taught me and move on.  Meadowlark and the three half BFL ewe lambs will always have a home with me, but with deep sadness I intend to discontinue raising Cormo crossbred sheep.

It’s hard to be excited in the midst of so much sorrow and so many changes, but I have some exciting things coming this summer.   Matt and I intend to do the following:

  • We are working on buying a farm.  We are looking for 50-100 open acres and a habitable house.
  • We are buying haying equipment to make our own hay in the future.
  • We are buying 10 more BFLs and possibly 8-10 Border Leicesters to start farming without off-farm jobs.
  • We will still be raising lamb and wool, but we’re thinking we might like to change the name of the farm to something…fancier?  Better?  I’m looking for something as memorable and loveable as Sheep and Pickle, but that prompts fewer questions about pickles and seems more professional, too.