Sustainability

Walking the Walk

 

Scrolling about on social media today I came across a fantastic video of Rebecca Burgess speaking at a conference in California.  For those not familiar with Ms. Burgess, she has emerged as a pioneer in the soil to skin movement.  A few years back Rebecca vowed to spend one year wearing only garments sourced within 150 miles of her doorstep. Her journey is a wonderful story but also a wake up call for all of us.  She realized one day she was "talking the talk", not "walking the walk".    

As I listened and pondered her story I realized I could easily say the same in my life.  

In some instances we can play the naive card.  I hadn't really thought about fossil fuels in my clothing and furnishings.  Here I am though, farming and promoting all natural, humanely raised, sustainably produced wool products and I'm not "walking the walk in all areas of my environment.   Once we have the information though, we need to make the changes in our lives.  I now know.  For the sake of our own integrity but also for our good of others.

And, let us not forget...

Our Planet!

 


To Wean or not to Wean

Observing a mother and her new born is a heavenly site.  We respond  based purely on emotions,  whether we've actually "mothered" or not.   At the moment you lay your eyes on this site all the world around is a blur and all that matters is the true love that halos around them.  It is such a pure connection that under no circumstances one should want to come between them, right?

 

A lot of the methods used in sheep farming  are about "management" of the flock.  The larger the number your trying to manage the harder it is to keep "order".  Orderliness becomes a goal for efficiency.  Efficiency adds to profits.  Follow me?  This is a slippery slope.

Weaning is one of those "management" tools.  According to reference books,  lambs should be removed from their mothers at 8-10 weeks old.  The reasons are mainly that the needs of the lambs for maximum market potential are different then the mamma's.    Growth of the lambs requires richer, higher protein grasses or grains which the mamma's don't need.  The only way to accomplish such a task is to separate them.  The other argument we found (didn't read it in a reference book) to support weaning  is the mothers will give and give until they are basically spent.  We find the heat of the summer, coupled with the very selfless nature of mom's takes everything out of them and begins to compromise their own health.

For these reasons one might wean.  

 

Wean:accustom (someone) to managing without something on which they have become dependent or of which they have become excessively fond.

 

Now that I've given you a bit of knowledge about weaning I'd like to share our journey with this decision.

We began this farm knowing we would make choices about the care of our animals based on our experiences, not just because everyone said so. Many topics of care and handling were researched and we found enough disparaging information that we felt strongly our decision to observe first was a worthy one.

Many of our farming practices were established by observing,  educating ourselves, then we'd established our way.  Weaning the lambs was one really challenging task.  Now 8 years later, after going back and forth, this year, we're not weaning again.  The first three years we didn't wean.  I wish I could tell you why we decided to wean the 4th year but I'm betting we succumb to the "text" book ways.  Most other shepherds around us weaned which made us question our decision even more.  Our farm was growing and as often happens after you've immersed yourself in something you loose some of your "curiosity" or better yet, the luxury of time to remember to be curious and ask questions.

So, we spent a few years weaning.  It is a very difficult task, not physically challenging, just heartbreaking really.  They cry and baa for easily 48 hours.  The mothers also.  Eventually they all settle in but gosh it never felt right.  As often I'm guided on this farm, if it goes against nature my heart cannot find peace with it...this is one of those lessons.  

With most industrial farming models, maximum growth of the lambs became the  shepherds primary goal in order to get those lambs to market fast and efficiently.  Is fast and efficient our ultimate goal.  Those that know this farm know our answer to this question is NO.  We strongly believe you sacrifice so much in order to achieve those fast/efficient goals.  It is this very reason that so many breeds of livestock are in danger of being lost for good...they don't meet these industrial models!

In summary, we've have some of the best looking, healthiest lambs ever, happily growing on mothers milk...there must have been some divine wisdom in that!

 

 


Sustainability & Our Precious Soil

As farmers, we've been told over and over, your #1 asset is your soil.

 It makes sense, the soil is the foundation of everything on this farm.  For us and most sustainable livestock farmers the pastures feed our sheep by daily spring, summer, and fall gnashing and in the winter its fed as hay.  That's all pretty straight forward, right.? 

 Prior to my farming life my familiarity with grass was only my own "city" lawn.  The lawn that framed my house and defined my space....the lawn I had to mow.  Almost every week-end in the summer I knew I'd be rolling out the self propelled grass eating machine to "manicure" my lawn. Just like everyone else in the neighborhood I kept my 9 to 5 schedule  during the week knowing yard work, long moments with coffee and the religious newspaper experiences were all part of my upcoming, predictable, always looked  forward to week-end.  I don't recall ever worrying about the grass other then it's color or the number of dandelions that emerged.  I probably could have done more to beautify my lawn but that wasn't my thing.  I was all about my garden beds and the pots that adorned my entrance or patio. As long as my grass was "groomed" I didn't do much else to my lawn.  My next door neighbor, now he was into it.  Every evening after work he was ready to work some more... in his yard.  His week-ends were spent fertilizing or amending something.  He had the lawn!  You know, the kind you imagine running barefoot through. Everyone knows the lawn I'm describing, like a green carpet with perfectly shaped edges.

I drove in and out of that neighborhood with all the perfectly manicured and aspiring to be lawns and never thought twice...it was all I'd ever known.

.....

if I knew then what I know now.

As a farmer working directly with mother nature I see so much I never realized.  

She speaks in so many visible ways.  

Naturally, as grasses grow then die back with the seasons, the soil is replenished with decomposing nutrients and a layer of "mulch" for protection.  If we mow the grass or take the grass for our livestock or "manicured" lawns we've robbed the soil of it's natural sources for replenishment .  

Simply put, "taking" the grass

 impacts the soil's fertility. Whether we mow a lawn or graze a pasture we are interrupting the natural process.

Because we depend on the grasses on our farm we learned very quickly the choices we had available to keep that grass healthy and growing!    If we we're going to take her natural source of nutrient we had to give something back.  

Our choices?  Natural or Synthetic. The nutrients in both types of fertilizer are much the same. The differences lie in their source, quantity, availability to plants and long term effects on the micro life of the soil.

Natural fertilizers sources come from plants, animal waste and natural minerals.  They also provide micro nutrients such as boron, copper, iron and manganese. Synthetic fertilizers contain nutrients made from fossil fuels.  

 See this beautiful pasture?  Just as green and lush as you can imagine.  It's kept that way at a tremendous expense.  Every year the farmer applies synthetic fertilizers and every year it looks like this.  What could be wrong with this?  Just like my "city" neighbor applying all those synthetic fertilizers on his lawn, the results are gorgeous and we're conditioned to want them that way.

So golly, why not?  

The synthetic fertilizers are like steroids, they feed the plant but interrupt the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the soil.  The plant can no longer depend on the soil to feed it.  

Eventually, the grass, without another application of those same synthetic fertilizers won't even green.  The natural flora of the soil is gone.  Believe me, I've seen it, even on this same pasture not far from our farm.

 Our other option and the only sustainable solution... we rebuild and/or replenish the soil with natural sources of nutrients.

Why isn't the natural solution the most chosen method?

First, we've been conditioned (brainwashed) to dependency on the commercially available options.  Secondit takes an investment of time and effort.

 It takes years of applying natural sources of nutrients back to your soil for the perfect balance to be achieved.  It takes testing your soil to know what's absent.  It takes sourcing the nutrients or in our case creating them from sources here on the farm.  We collect the leaves and gather our kitchen scraps.  We trek our barn waste to our collection areas along with all the other valuable waste materials and layer them together to age. In this way we build our own dark rich compost that we refer to as gold. We apply that "gold" to our pastures and our soil has what it needs to do what mother nature intended...GROW GOOD STUFF!

So, it takes first admitting the need to do it for the health of our soils and ourselves and second the commitment to the investment of time and labor.

Are we willing to make that investment?

Can we afford not to?

Come out to our farm and see first hand how my immediate boss,

Mother Nature

, whispers in my ear, pokes me in the arm and sometimes slaps me upside the head...

As I write this post I feel proud that we've taken the time and ever prouder of that dark, rich, healthy soil we give back to our soils........

Sustain a Whataby?

I don't know about you but the term "Sustainability" seems everywhere.  

According to

sustainability.com,

(yes, there is a website)

sustainability is...

...in the simplest and most fundamental is "the ability to sustain" or, put another way "the capacity to endure".

Sustainability is an idea, a philosophy.  Sustainability could apply to the economy or society.  It's sustainability of our environment that I am most often focused on.

As a farmer, my day to day is spent in and with nature. Mother Nature speaks to me with visible signs. Don't get me wrong, I don't think I'm special (don't ask my husband that though) I believe her signs are all around all of us.  Working, immersed in the great outdoors, I am highly exposed to those signs.  Nature is so sensitive to everything we do and her responses are so obvious.  

If we pay attention, she will tell us when she doesn't like something.  

The real challenge is honoring her requests!  

Sometimes the required action goes against our normal way of doing things. 

As farmers and more specifically livestock farmers, we're dependent on the grass.  I have seen with my own eyes how grass responds to chemicals used to kill it and chemicals, readily available and highly marketed synthetic fertilizers, used to make it grow.  When those practices are used grass grows green, grass grows fast and grass grows tall or grass dies, as you wish.  

When synthetic products are used the natural cycle is interrupted.

 I've seen many a farm that has applied synthetic fertilizers for so many years that the grass will no longer grow unless those synthetics are re-applied.  I've seen many a fence line saturated with

Glyphosate

better known as RoundUp, that we know requires us to become dependent on more RoundUp in order to achieve that "manicured" look.

Which one of these isn't sustainable?

Our fence line

 "Manicured" has become the norm  for most of us. We have practiced it for so long it's difficult to see the beauty in "out-a-control" growth but,  we must.

I have learned I must change the way I think and see. 

This didn't come to me overnight.  I too have had to wean myself from the "old" habits.  It takes time to change a habit and we become accustomed to a familiar look. 

Along the way I've also been enlightened to some facts that support my observations.   When we mow our pastures and take the grass for hay each year, we remove nutrients that cannot be recaptured.  The natural process of grass going fallow in the winter actually feeds the soil.

I did not know this!

We luckily had the required "need" for successful grass production that made my observations possible.  We realized the long term success of our grass depended on mother natures natural cycles and processes.  We realized our dependence on the products to make the grass grow faster and taller and greener or not was not only financially unsustainable but environmentally not so either.

Honoring her requests requires action on our part.  

Often, the requested action is uncomfortable.

The easiest (but most expensive) thing we could do on our farm is apply synthetic fertilizer.  We realized how

UNSUSTAINABLE

that decision would be for the long term success and health of our operation.  

We are now doing what our ancestors did before synthetic fertilizers existed...we compost and give it back to the soils.  It's not an overnight solution but it is the only

SUSTAINABLE

solution. 

And this folks is a perfect example of SUSTAINABLE practices in play; environmentally, financially and I would argue socially. 

What I know now....


Before I begin the real content of this post I want to dedicate this to a couple that came to our farmers market booth last week-end.  I had the perfect opportunity and a willing audience and so the discussion began.  They were looking through our coolers for some lamb.  As it happens from time to time, she looked up at me and said, 
"how can you do it?" 

here it comes, get ready for it, the predictable yet perplexing comment..........

"I could never eat an animal I raised."

Before farming,  I never really thought about how food got to our local grocery stores.  Through that  plastic wrapping at our local SUPER market I felt confident I had enough experience to spot freshness, what else should matter?  




Now, as a farmer growing sheep, pastures, eggs (no worries, I'm not laying eggs), and vegi's I have a whole new perspective.   I truly didn't have any idea what was involved. I didn't have to know how the food got to me,  the choices were provided and available to me and I knew no other options. 

 My bet is many of you can relate.

 I remember once my family was in England for the holidays and we decided on prime rib for our Christmas dinner. We went to a local butcher because that's often the way they still do things in England.  He presented Bessie, photos; family photos, and all. The butcher and his family loved Bessie. Needless to say I couldn't eat Christmas dinner.  



If I knew then what I know now! 

Through my journey I have concluded, we as consumers are so disconnected from the whole dang process.


 Every time we take a few lambs to the arbitrator to be processed, we shed a tear, we hold hands and say a prayer, then we bless them ...it never gets easier.

I have really wrestled with this.  I've contemplated my options. We could stop raising lamb and I could become a vegetarian. For a variety of personal reasons I won't go into, vegetarianism isn't for me.  So, what would I do if I stopped processing our lambs because it was difficult?  If I didn't give up meat would I go into the grocery like most of America and buy those hermetically sealed packages of meat from animals pushed through a food chain living uneventful lives with no tenderness or compassion for their uniqueness on this earth?  

This is an example of where most grocery store meat comes from.


It would certainly have been easier to do.  

And that... would be so hypocritical.


If folks had to engage in the process there would be a much greater respect for the animals and the food on their tables.

If folks would engage in the process or at least be aware, they couldn't eat meat raised in the horrible conditions so many are raised in.  

If folks would engage in the process and be aware, fewer people would be eating meat.

In our house, if we are going to consume meat/fish it will be humanely raised which I also believe is difficult (not impossible) to do if not from a small farm and definitely not from a factory farm. 

Because of our new found respect for meat and how it gets to our tables, we don't eat a lot of it.  
When we do eat meat it is only from healthy happy animals and farms that strive for that.  Yes, it's more expensive and that is part of the reason why we eat less.


Regarding the interaction with the customers last week-end, I followed up her comment sharing the content of this soon to be realized blog, in a few less sentences of course.  They were so thankful that I shared the experience.  I truly believe they will be more respectful of the process.

I want to thank them for reminding me there are people out there that want to know....




WHOLEsome Food: EGGS

Yesterday, on Facebook, I saw a post that I found eye opening.  



The post got my attention but so did the comments from folks still talking about the price of eggs.  I hear folks gripe a lot about the price of farm fresh eggs.  

No question, farm fresh food can be pricey in comparison to the big box stores. We're so conditioned to the prices established by the industrial size farms, when we're faced with the prices associated with the small, local growers offering the most healthful alternatives we often feel a bit of sticker shock. 

Many folks realize the choice they're making but for those that want to be a bit enlightened I thought it was time to share a bit of chicken and egg farming reality...

Yes, you can buy a dozen factory eggs from chickens lucky to see the light of day.  You can always be assured your eggs come from tightly confined hens dropping their eggs on a conveyor belt.  And yes, you can get those for around $1.99 or sometimes less!

Pastured, free range chicken eggs run $4-$5 in our neck of the woods.  Organic are even higher I'm not going to engage the "organic" discussion here, that might be a future Blog. 

Let me show you what you get for that extra $1.50.  


Look at the difference in nutrients!




And, if nutrients don't get your attention (the foodie in me never leaves the room) have you tasted the difference in a farm fresh egg and a store bought? 


Can you see the one?  Now you should taste the difference!  






What the farmer feeds the chickens, or pigs, cows, and sheep or even vegetable crops will have a direct impact on the price they have to (or should) charge the consumer.   You want your farmer sourcing the best inputs.  Small farms like ours don't always have the luxury of buying in bulk or spreading our costs.   On our farm the quality of input is so important.  We end up sourcing our inputs from specialty vendors and the cost is at a premium. 
  
Did you know....chickens are pigs
Not the cute pink squealing type. So named because they eat and eat more then you imagine they could.  Creative farmers are always thinking of ingenious healthy ways to keep them full like planting a field of something chickens love but then they have to worry about the need for a balanced diet.  Yep, no kidding, they need proper attention to balanced nutrients.  

This time of year we also face slowing of egg production due to shorter days and molting.  Industrial farms, well they just pour another concrete pad and add some light bulbs.  They have learned how to manipulate nature, we small farmers are still figuring out how to work with in her parameters!


 So, next time you pick up a dozen eggs...no matter the source...think about those chickens and think about your health.  Most important though....if we want to have small farmers growing healthy food for us we need to 
Rethink our Food Choices!

As a farmer raising chickens I am blessed to see with my own eyes the bright happy spirit in these animals sniffing, scratching, rolling, cackling, and eating what nature provides....

Flavor!

I wonder if I'd have taken the same 'journey through food' had I not become a farmer.   My passion for great food and cooking was established early on in my life.  My journey would help me understand that  FLAVOR begins with the seeds, the genetics, the roots, the dirt and the hands of a farmer.  I would learn that FLAVOR was determined at the beginning of our food origins.

I considered FLAVOR successes  the result of experience and creativity in the preparation...all attached to a finished product, say a fine cheese from a family that had been mastering the art for generations.  I didn't realize what you begin with, the raw ingredients, could have such an impact on the final result. I thought, and why wouldn't I, that any bright green pepper without blemishes would provide the absolute complexity of any other green pepper anywhere, right?

SlowFood, founded in Italy in 1986 and soon after taking root throughout the US, helped me realize that the integrity of our food was in jeopardy.  I became reacquainted with the most basic "ingredients" in my food experiences. I became educated to "organics" and familiar with "local" economies and the benefits of eating local.  Farmers Markets were popping up everywhere.  My thirst for fresh, local, healthy, juicy, FLAVOR full options became obvious.    About the same time I saw the emergence of terms like "heritage" breeds and "heirloom" varieties...FLAVORS surpassed for bigger, prettier, faster growing, and disease resistant options.  All these sheep, pigs, cows, and chickens with distinct flavors and natural lean qualities that couldn't keep up with the demands of the factory farm operations, too small, too slow growing, and not domesticated enough....all being replaced.  As for our fruits and vegi's that were a little too fragile, or not pretty enough...also being replaced.   As for our intimate food experiences, who had the time anymore? 

Before now the naive belief that getting food to us faster, making it last longer, have a better shelf life, more of it and cheaper prices had been the perceived solution in our growing society. We were paying a huge price to achieve our goals. FLAVOR was gradually being sacrificed, but how were we to know?


My move to the farm brought the venue for my continued adventure down FLAVOR lane. With fresh vegi's from my garden and other farmers it became more and more apparent, the FLAVOR differences were so obvious.  I believe my first mind blowing experience was the almighty tomato.  Who doesn't know the difference between a garden fresh, ripened by the sun, hopefully heirloom tomato and a store bought, well traveled, refrigerated alternative?  As I walked from my own garden with a spear of asparagus, watching the water flow from the freshly cut end, I realized I felt almost robbed.   My ONLY experience with asparagus had been on my plate or in the grocery store with the ends dry and looking like the corrugated threads of cardboard.  Walking toward my house that tender spear didn't have a chance, YUM!  Even if you could bite into that pale green flesh at a grocery you wouldn't because tender, as we've known it, happened only after cooking.  I bought carrots at the farmers market so sweet I'd swear I'd eaten a decadent dessert and lettuce varieties of all kinds, spicy, sweet, crisp and curled, dark green, light and even red.  WOW!  I was like a child learning the nuances of the very food I'd been so passionately consuming. Everything grabbed my senses. It wasn't until I realized FLAVOR was a choice not a given that I began to really pay attention.  
So, whats the most important take away from my journey...we must engage in where our food comes from.  I know we are all going through a food revolution of sorts. Those at the most basic end of the spectrum might be questioning buying from the big box stores, while others like me can barely shop in a grocery store at all.  As I said I am lucky to have healthful, FLAVORFUL, fresh options mostly outside my door.  My hope is at the very least you are all awakened by some morsel of food that makes your mouth water and your tongue dance too.  I am more and more convinced we each have to find our way back to REAL SLOW WHOLE  Food. 
To be continued.......