Blog

Sheep Become the Job

For the last few years,  I have worked full time (and more), fitting the sheep in on mornings, evenings and weekends.  I am used to making do, making sheep wait for later, making what I had work.

Now, the sheep are right in front of my life.  We’ve really had to adjust our schedule, but mostly we’ve had to change our mentality.  It is critical that we solve issues immediately.  Emergencies aren’t just inconvenient- they are now a much larger factor in whether our venture succeeds or fails.  Matt and I have had several intense conversations establishing our expectations in this regard.  We could work on this farm every minute of every day.  But we also have a few decades under our belts and I am having a return of some health concerns that are slowing me down.  So we make sure that we take periods of rest.

Some things we have accomplished since we started:

  • We knocked down all but one acre-ish of standing, overgrown milkweed and goldenrod to promote grass growth.
  • We met two more neighbors- a former sheep-farmer and a dairyman with 40 Jerseys who hays the field adjacent to our fields.
  • We acquired an adorably small manure-spreader.
  • We added 90 more bales to the 30 bales Matt made.  Only 60 more bales are needed for the winter. 

  • We ordered and received our 60′ x 30′ barn.  We have yet to build it.
  • We have stacked some, but not all, of our wood.
  • We haven’t stacked all of our wood because we’ve been shoveling free horse manure into the back of my truck and spreading it on our smaller hayfield.
  • I have taken soil samples around the land, so we will soon know how much of which nutrients we will need to import to the land.
  • I am now keeping a daily flock journal.

This year, we are breeding the adult sheep for January lambs, so Fred is hard at work charming the ladies.  The lambs have been growing steadily with some grain in their diet, and at Mary Lake’s recommendation we’ve finally purchased and begun to administer BoSE (a Vitamin E and Selenium supplement) to the flock to improve their health.  Here’s to a brighter and healthier future for the sheep.

A Few Weeks In

We’re now a few weeks into living and working our new farm.  Huge changes continue.

  • We separated the ewes and the lambs again.  This time, it’s so that we can breed the adults for January and February lambs and breed the ewe lambs to have babies in May, when their bodies will be more mature and prepared.  This does mean that we will have some Border Leicester/Bluefaced Leicester crosses
  • The house desperately needed a new roof, so we found a roofer and got the job done.  The lambs baa’ed at the poor roofers all day long.
  • We got chickens!  We are very excited to have eight lovely Rhode Island Reds and a very handsome rooster of a breed that I can’t recall the name of.  He looks similar to a Welsummer and we appreciate his gentle (so far!) personality.
  • The land here has been transformed by our mowing efforts.  We bought a house with overgrown fields and small shrubs starting to come on.  Now, the fields are moving away from goldenrod and ragweed and back to clover, orchardgrass and forbs.
  • Matt made a first cutting of hay – 30 bales isn’t a bad haul!  The hay is crummy, but hopefully we can add some fertilizer
  • I am in love with the beautiful Border Leicesters who came to the farm.  They’re so bright and healthy.  Mary sheared three of them and we now have some lovely wool to play with.  I am mixed on offering the white for sale as fleece or making some batts.
  • We shipped four ram lambs to meet our fresh lamb orders.  Two Cormo/BFL crosses dressed out at and above my goal weight- hooray!  The other two were a little scrawny, but I know that they didn’t get everything they could have with the move and other factors in play.
  • Every day, I step outside and breathe in fresh air.  I look at the sheep, and I realize that I don’t have to make any compromises in my efforts to meet their needs.  If I need to change something or move them, I can do what I need to without hesitation. We can finally invest in the sheep as deeply as we need to without thinking about mobility.  Our land is sunny and breezy.  Our home is quiet and peaceful.  I have abundant gratitude for everything we’ve been given.   I hope that Pete would be pleased with what we’ve done.

 

The Wonderful Gift

Today, 14 beautiful registered Border Leicester ewes joined the flock at the farm.  Sue and Bruce Johnson came up from Hinesburg with some of their finest yearling and two-year-old ewes.  The sheep are wide, square, clean and lovely.  They represent decades of careful breeding and it’s really an honor to have them here.

Sitting in the field, I saw before me the flock we’ve been waiting for.  Beautiful sheep, ready to transform this grass into fleece and meat.  This is the dream I barely began to formulate in 2012.  Now, the dream is literally wandering around before me, confused but contented.

After an hour or so, they settled in.

Because my life is action-packed at the moment, tomorrow, I will get my yarn for 2017.  This will be the last year that I’ll have the CormoX yarn, so stock up!  We are excited that some of the new ewes have fleeces that will go to the Sheep and Wool Festival, along with a couple of lambs fleeces.  Stay tuned for more.

20170801_13195420170801_171943

And We’re Out

July 1-4  – I am at a retreat at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, coping with the fact that we just bought a house in Albany, VT, just north of Craftsbury and Hardwick.

July 5-12 – Every day, I wake up in Williston at 8, handle the sheep, cat and birds, and pack the car until 11ish.  Then I drive to Albany and unpack.  Matt is busy making the water run, installing a hot water heater, and bringing the electrical systems up to code in Albany.

July 12-20 – We have moved most of the house items to Albany, but we are still living in Williston in a ever-more-empty room.  Matt still has many repairs to work on.  We are starting to move large items, like the tractors and implements.  My mother comes and helps us move the cat and the birds.  We also move the flock up to Albany in two trips in my truck.  The back of the truck still smells.  I’m glad I’ll never have to move the sheep en-masse again.

July 21-24 – Mom and I travel to Ohio and back in three days to purchase five more registered Bluefaced Leicesters.  Day One is just drive across New York State, Northeastern PA and Ohio.  Just rolling hills terminating in flatness.  We reach a hotel just outside Cincinnati by 9pm.  We spend the following day just stretching our legs, touring Cincinnati and preparing for the long slog.  We got to meet Lowell Bernhardt.  He has a beautiful flock of sheep nestled among the corn and soy fields.  On Sunday, we got up at 5:30, grabbed some coffee and loaded the trio of lovely ewe lambs from Lowell.  We set off for Howard, Ohio, to meet Anne Bisdorf and Lisa Rodenfels.   Anne owned the ewes I was buying.  Lisa no longer keeps sheep, but her flock was a major influence on the breed in the US.  She was kind enough to drive a distance to see the lambs that descended from her flock, as both Lowell’s and Anne’s flocks originated with Lisa.  Mom and I then drove back to Vermont, sheep baa-ing away in the back.  The rest of the drive took 14 hours, and we arrived in Albany after midnight.  We are both wiped and the sheep were sick of each other in their tight quarters in Mom’s van.  Matt has been managing all of the animals for three days.  He’s tired, too, so Monday is a rest day.

July 25-July 30th – Matt and I complete our move out of Williston.   We took down all three of our Garage-in-a-Box outbuildings in one day and moved the chicken coop in an epic struggle with four of our best friends helping.  I have put 2500 miles on my truck doing this move, with half of those towing heavy weights.  We finished cleaning the house at 8:30 Saturday night and turned over the keys.

The flock is adjusting well to their new home.  The grass here isn’t as good as the grass was in Williston.  The soil here has been robbed of nutrients for too long, but we’re already moving forward on improvements.  There is still much to be done just to make the house work, but the roofer starts next Monday and we have the chimney repairs scheduled too.  We’ve ordered the barn, and we’re working on our Current Use enrollment.

Saving the Best for Last

Our New Place

To our surprise and delight, the house we thought we might have to walk away from has been freed from bureaucratic encumbrance, and is ours again to buy.   Some poor file clerk pulled the file again, found the missing document, and suddenly we were good to go. We close on Friday.

About our new farm:

Some of you who have been in shepherding for a long time remember the debacle in the 90’s involving some sheep, legally imported from Belgium, who became the subjects of a USDA investigation.  The sheep were confiscated from one farm, but another chose to fight and engaged in a multi-year legal battle with the USDA.  Our new property is the farm where the sheep were removed immediately.  Their heartbroken owners rented out their cheese facility for a number of years but after a fire in the cheese room were unable to continue.  The bold, deep blue interior of the house has a mournful quality that brings to mind abandoned dreams.  It is both beautiful and sad.

Our hope is to restore this property and renew the hope of sustainable sheepraising on it. Despite a history of loss, the property still has tremendous potential for pasture-based lamb-raising and perhaps endeavors like pigs, chickens and ducks.  The land slopes gently away from the home, awarding us a clear view of any animals at any time.  A trickle of a stream segments the property vertically, promising water in dry years and drainage in damp ones like this summer so far.  The land is fertile but not fertile enough for demanding crops like corn or rich enough for dairy cows.  It is exactly the kind of land that should be designated for sheep enterprises.  We have a view of the Lowell Wind Project, which I don’t mind at all.

While I am grateful for all of the opportunities that farming in suburban Williston has provided, I am excited to return to small-town living.  I am excited to have a town and a region to contribute to and to form long-term relationships with.  I am excited to meet the other shepherds in the area.  Matt is excited to have a garage where he can work on implements with his tools organized and his work area clean and uninterrupted.  The rescue parrots we have will be excited by the high ceilings and great sunlight in the house.  The property has a defunct cheese plant on it with a dual septic system, a walk-in cooler and many other neat goodies.  Sadly, the state of disrepair means that we’ll need to invest a large chunk of money in this building to get it off the ground as a rental cheesemaking facility or renovated on-farm slaughter facility.

I am also excited to paint some of the blue wallpaper in a bright, sunny yellow shade.  We are ready to renew.

Stay tuned for some tales of sheep-moving and some new adventures.

Still in Limbo

I’ve been away from the farm blog and our Facebook page dealing with sheep lately.  We’ve been working hard at buying a farm, and it hasn’t gone particularly smoothly.  I mentioned a farm in Brownington.  It would have been a great farm, but we couldn’t come to an agreement with all of the parties who owned it.  Three were ready to sell it, but one seemed hesitant.  While we were waiting to hear about our offer on the Brownington house, we went to look at other houses in case the whole plan fell through.  We found a different house in Albany during our search, and because we had not heard from the other sellers in a timely fashion, we changed direction and made an offer on the Albany house.

Things were going well with the Albany property, which has many appealing features and is more modern than the first property.   When we started the title search process, however, we hit a serious issue.  The property was surrendered in lieu of payment to the bank, but the paperwork wasn’t completed correctly, and the error would potentially leave a new purchasers (us) potentially liable for debts incurred by the prior owner.  So now we are waiting for the paperwork to be redone, and there’s a chance that the re-doing could uncover other issues that would delay our ability to buy the house indefinitely.

I feel like my life is on hold.  I can’t prepare much for the move or finalize the sheep situation until we have a place for them to go.  I have five more Bluefaced Leicesters coming in July 22-23, a ram from Terra Mia farm in Oregon being delivered on July 4,  and 14 Border Leicesters under the patient care of their current owner while we wait for a barn and field to be available.  Not to mention the barn builders and the roofer who await a timeframe from us on owning the house.  I admit that my stress level has been pretty high, as we don’t have a lot of appealing property options in our pricerange if we can’t make this purchase.  We will farm somewhere, but it could be less than we had hoped for.

20170618_130443

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.