Forgiveness

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We here in Georgia have had seven years of drought. Serious, for real, drought. Fertility plundering drought. The kind of drought that when it does rain, the delicate topsoil is so dry, the roots of the plants so frail that it simply washes away with nothing to hold it in place. It was the kind of drought where manure from our animals, rich with vital nutrients and potential to restore fertility shrivels, dries up, and blows away in the wind. It was the kind of drought that forced cattlemen to buy hay until the money ran out, then to sell their entire herds to the feedlot, abandoning their life's work. It was the kind of drought that caused vegetable crops to wither and succumb to disease. It was the kind of drought where folks worried about the long-term viability of ground water as a resource. It was the kind of drought that one summer, a few years ago, a family was killed in their car as a tree fell on them. The roots of the great oak had become so shallow from years of too little rain that when it rained in earnest for a few short hours, the tree had no grip on the softening earth.

So it was.

But not anymore. The relief has been more generous than any of us could have imagined. Sweet, summer rain, like God's own mercy. Only now, as summer wanes and the mercy continues day after day, there are some who scorn. Now, it is the special privilege of the farmer to complain about the weather. It is never perfect. It is never as we would have it be for our plants and animals in our custody. But mother nature always takes the long view. Our problems as farmers are present and near, despite the fact that a larger problem is resolving for the longer good.

Many of our vegetable farmer friends have been hit hard. Real hard. Tomatoes and peppers are late. Melons rot before they can be picked. Bugs gorge themselves on the overly lush leaves of crops. What little does come out of the field tastes watered down. Farmers can hardly work for the mud: delicate little plant starts can't survive in sodden ground and tractors slip and worse, compact the beds. Our farmer friend Darby of the magnificent Sun Dog Farm writes beautifully about the struggle the rain has caused her burgeoning vegetable operation. It's a mess. A mess that has demanded that customers step up and show up to often wet farmers' markets and shell out for the goods that are there. It is, in many ways, a test of the loyalty of customers to see their farmers through the rough patches and a test of the whole system of local agriculture. It is only sustainable if patrons sustain it, even when the tomatoes are infrequent and imperfect.

For us, however, and I say this with the deepest sympathy and respect to my suffering vegetable farmer friends, the rain has been amazing. Grass loves rain. It can't get enough of it. Our farmhand Pete recently noticed how a hose that had been left in the pasture for about a week had been devoured by the vigorous sward, making it nearly impossible to extract. Roots deepen and expand. Leaves turn lush, thick, and palatable to our sheep. The health of our sheep improves, for while the foul barber-pole worm that kills our animals loves the rain, the abundant, lush grass gives the ewes the nutrients they need to help fight it. We can't keep up with the growth. Plants grow tall and seed heads form before the sheep have finished eating the previous day's ration. This time last year we were buying hay and making sacrifice paddocks. The world felt frighteningly arid. This year the rain has made those sacrifice paddocks rich and green long before we thought they would.

We are excited. Organic matter produced by our sheep is soaking into the soil (not washing away), enriching it and building it, putting back what the poor farming practices of our forebears took away. More years like this will help us build our soil faster, and the more our soil is built, the more drought tolerance we can achieve for when the dryness returns (and it will always return). Organic matter, lively with bacteria and fungus, held together by a deep and broad network of roots, its surface utterly opaque with grass, is a sponge. It holds water. Water does not evaporate away off a bare surface. Fertility increases. Agricultural stability increases. The land, as Joel Salatin puts it, builds forgiveness (starts at 6:00 mark). And lord knows, we farmers could use some forgiveness.

And so I implore you, my vegetable-growing friends: have faith. Take the rain as a sign of good things to come. Take it as a sign that the world wants balance: that the long view bends towards stability, fertility, and abundance. Think on how a year or two of rain has the power to undo seven of drought. And to my good food eating friends, I implore you: have the tenacity to support us all through nature's ebbs and flows. Know that buying a blemished tomato this year is an investment in the perfect tomatoes to come. It is an investment in the process of restoration. Forgive the farmer her imperfect fruit and buy it anyway. Take the long view. Be the one who builds forgiveness into the system.

A New Friend

Made a new friend over the weekend. Artist Brett Deschene took these amazing photographs of the farm, and I thought I'd share them with y'all:

A moment

I'm having a moment. It's the moment, right before lambing, right before milking, right before the work of the year kicks off that makes me crazy. It is the feeling that something is coming. Something is coming and I need to step up. It's what a swimmer feels right before she jumps in the pool for a big race, the feeling a gymnast has in that fraction of a second, whirling through the air: “am I going to stick this?” It's a precipice and it sucks. It's a moment of being out of control, relying entirely on your training, on your habits, on circumstance, but not on your mind. Unwelcome thoughts appear in my mind: what if all the lambs die? What if they're all too small? What if they're all too big? What if all the ewes die? Or get mastitis? What if they never go into milk? Are they even pregnant? How will I make cheese this year if the ewes aren't even pregnant? What if they're all born early?What if not enough ewes are pregnant to make enough cheese to pay the bills?

It goes on and on... my mind spins and frets in its knowledge that it is useless here. It's all just going to happen. It's like I'm riding this wave, this wave called Mother Nature and I'm begging her to work with me, to not toss me around or crush me. I don't want to end up face-first in the sand (or a coral reef, for that matter!); I'm pleading with her to work with me so I can ride this transition, to stick this landing... to make it to the other side.

Coq au Vin, or, the magic the French use to coax the most inedible meat possible into something delicious

When we butchered our old laying hens a couple of weeks ago, we also butchered about six roosters who had been living among the hens, fertilizing eggs and maintaining the pecking order, as it were. We butchered them last. We should have done them first when our energy was freshest. Roosters are some tough mothas! Their skin is tough to cut, requiring constant re-honing of the knives, and their cavities are impossible to open up: it took the full-strength of both my arms to pull them open enough to remove their innards. You can actually see the striations in the bands of muscle tissue, the thought of which made my jaws clench in fear of excessive mastication and the need for dental floss. To look at an old rooster carcass, one imagines a meat that has more in common with rubber bands than with actual food.

Thinking of cooking these roosters, I remembered that Chef Linton Hopkins gave a fantastic talk at the Georgia Organics conference a few years ago: he discussed the merits of the "lesser" cuts of beef, such as tongue and heart. He suggested that when cooking these meats, one has to consider what that part of the animal did in life and prepare it using the complementary characteristics. A tongue or a heart is constantly in motion, working ceaselessly chewing cud, ripping out grass, or pumping blood day and night. Thus, these cuts need a lot of long, slow cooking at a low temperature. A tenderloin, on the other hand, is a muscle that is barely used, thus it is soft and needs only the shortest amount of cooking at a very high temperature.

A chicken is no different, only, instead of specific parts, the whole body is what we are concerned with. A young chicken, hen or rooster, has not had the chance to work its muscles for very long, and so, the meat is very tender. This is why most roasting birds are slaughtered at or before 12 weeks of age. Industrially-produced chickens are butchered even sooner (and at a much higher body weight due to inhumane breeding practices and concentrate feeds laced with growth hormone).

An old farm hen or rooster, though, has lived several years: pecking, scratching, fighting, roosting, nesting. Roosters are especially active. They have to service a lot of hens, provide them with protection from other roosters and predators (yes, a rooster can fight off a hawk or a raccoon if inclined), and maintain the social order of the flock through engaging in and breaking-up fights. They are big, muscly, and tough in life, and so they are also in death.

So, how do you cook a cock? Coq au Vin, of course! This dish is quintessential French peasant food. It is designed, through long, slow cooking in wine (which is highly acidic and thereby breaks down muscle tissue) to turn an otherwise inedible rooster into something that is, frankly, succulent. It is a food borne out of the frugality of farm life. While old roosters and hens in our modern food system are sold as dog food, or processed into thin, salty canned soups, or are otherwise lost to the industrial food machine, a small farm or farm hobbyist can access a traditional staple of French cuisine that just isn't the same when you use a store-bought fryer.

In fact, when researching to find a good recipe to work from for coq au vin, I could not find one that gave instructions for actually using a "coq." They all called for a regular fryer or pieces of a fryer. As if in lament for the lack of availability of roosters, Lynne Rosetto Kasper titles her recipe for coq au vin, "Coq au Vin Nouveau!" Gentle readers, this is not coq au vin. In fact, it is everything coq au vin is not: it has a short cooking time and relies on modern conveniences such as "canned, low-sodium chicken broth", "skinless chicken thighs," and bizarrely, "white wine."  Nouveau indeed!

I eventually found a recipe over at the Smitten Kitchen based off of the classic Julia Child recipe. It still called for a regular fryer, but the elements were all there: a whole bird, cut into pieces, browned with lardons, stewed in Cognac and good red wine, the sauce finished with a buerre manie, and served with browned mushrooms and caramelized pearl onions.

There, doesn't that sound better? I thought so.

 I was finally able to find a recipe that actually called for a "coq" or "cockerel" in my trusty Larousse Gastronomique, which connected up with what I found at the Smitten Kitchen, only it called for a longer cooking time and to thicken the sauce not only with the buerre maine, but with the cockerel's's blood as well. I wish I had saved some!

And so, I present to you, the coq au vin that I made with a couple of old roosters in the traditional mode:

A note on ingredients: I used old roosters, but old stew hens will also work well for this. Use a young chicken or hen only if you can't find old birds. Or better yet, make a different dish suited to a more tender meat!

Please also, do not feel constrained to use the standard button mushrooms for this. I used some fantastic oyster mushrooms from our fellow farmer, Michael over at Indian Ridge Farm, who has the most amazing, large, and beautiful mushrooms I have ever seen. Many recipes call for morels (which are expensive and hard to find), but I say this is one area where you should really play with what is locally and seasonally available: chanterelles, shiitake, hen of the woods, oyster, etc. Just remember, whatever mushrooms you use, fry them in batches with lots of space between them, otherwise they won't brown.

Equipment:

A heavy, 10-inch, fireproof casserole such as cast iron or enamelware (DO NOT use nonstick), long matches, a fine, mesh strainer, parchment paper

Ingredients:

6-ounces bacon, cut into lardons
4 tablespoons butter
2 old roosters, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup Cognac, Armanac, or strong Brandy
6 cups (about 1.5 bottles) young, full-bodied, French red wine such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, or Cotes du Rhone
2 cups brown chicken stock or beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

For the buerre maine:
6 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons softened butter

1/2 to 1 pound caramelized pearl onions
1 pound sautéed mushrooms (see note above)

Method:

In your large, flame-proof casserole, melt butter until it is hot and foaming. Add the lardons and fry slowly until browned and crisp. Set aside the lardons, but leave the hot fat in the pan. Season the rooster pieces with salt and pepper, then gently brown, letting any bits of fat and skin turn golden and slightly crisp on the edges. Pour in the Cognac and carefully light it. When the flames die down, add the wine, tomato paste, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves. Let simmer for a few minutes. Then, cover tightly with a layer of parchment paper and foil or oven-proof lid. Place in a 200 degree oven and braise for 3-4 hours (longer if you have time). After the braise is complete, remove the bits of chicken. They should be falling off the bone. Filter the juices through a fine strainer and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight.

Meanwhile, make the buerre maine by kneading the flour and soft butter together until you have a homogeneous paste. Set aside.

Remove the layer of fat from the refrigerated sauce and heat. Whisk in your buerre maine until everything has dissolved. Reduce the sauce by about 15% , it should coat the back of a spoon nicely. Adjust seasoning.

Add the chicken back to the sauce. At this point, you can refrigerate your coq au vin for a few days before serving, if you wish.

For the accompanying mushrooms and onions (taken directly from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking):

Oignons Glacés a Brun [Brown-braised Onions]

For 18 to 24 peeled white onions about 1 inch in diameter:
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
A 9- to 10-inch enameled skillet
1/2 cup of brown stock, canned beef bouillon, dry white wine, red wine or water
Salt and pepper to taste
A medium herb bouquet: 3 parsley springs, 1/2 bay leaf, and 1/4 teaspoon thyme tied in cheesecloth

When the butter and oil are bubbling the skillet, add the onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect to brown them uniformly.

Pour in the liquid, season to taste, and add the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove the herb bouquet. Serve them as they are.

Champignons Sautés Au Buerre [Sautéed Mushrooms]

A 10-inch enameled skillet
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, washed, well dried, left whole if small, sliced or quartered if large
1 to 2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions (optional)
Salt and pepper

Place the skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. As soon as you see the butter foam has begun to subside, indicating that it is hot enough, add the mushrooms. Toss and shake the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. During their sauté the mushrooms will at first absorb the fat. In 2 to 3 minutes the fat will reappear on their surface, and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove from heat.

 

Serve the coq au vin hot, with the mushrooms and onions scattered on top. Buttered egg noodles or boiled potatoes make an excellent and traditional accompaniment, as does a bitter green salad such as arugula, endive, or frissée.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

Egg and Chicken

Over the past two days we have been killing chickens. A lot of chickens. As our farmers' market customers know, we've been short on eggs. Really short. This is because our hens were going on three years old. For a hen, that's old; much too old to be a mama hen anymore (and let's face it, what wild, ancestral, jungle chicken ever even made it to age 3?) and so, her body stops laying eggs. At this point, the birds are only good for two things: entertainment and the stock pot. Since the entertainment value of a chicken (and they are funny creatures! I often tell my customers that if you have chickens, you don't need TV!) is somewhat less than its food value and a good deal less than its nutritional value, we rented a plucker and scalder from Darby Farms and went to the messy, messy task of harvesting some 200 birds.

For those folks not well-acquainted with chicken killing, here are the basic steps:  kill, scald, pluck, gut, chill, pack. While this summation seems straightforward, slightly more detail renders a more accurate picture:

1. Catch the bird. This is harder than it seems. Have you ever tried to catch a chicken? In some cultures, catching a chicken is considered a right of passage for young boys who wish to become hunters (y'all remember that scene from Roots?). Generally, chicken catching is best done at night (or with a leg snare, but who has the time?), since they become unusually docile and willing. We went out at dark, snatched up the birds in crates, and brought them to a room in the barn for easier bird-napping on the day itself.

2. Place bird, head-first, in cone. Killing cones are the standard, tried-and-true method for killing poultry. They are essentially a cone with a hole in the bottom wide enough for the birds head to come through.

3. Cut veins on sides of neck. Chickens have two veins on either side of their necks that push a large volume of blood pretty quickly. Feathers, however, can make getting there a little difficult. That and figuring out exactly how much force to use based on the thickness of the bird's skin, the sharpness of the knife, and the strength of your nerve.

4. Wait for the bird to bleed-out and die. You know the phrase, "running around like a chicken with its head cut off"? Well, whether or not you cut off the head, wring the neck, or slit the veins, it doesn't matter; short of obliterating the poor bird, chickens have a violent nervous system response as they die. Shortly after the loose consciousness, the autonomic nervous system fires up, causing them to convulse, their wings to flap, and if they are on their feet, they can run for a bit. This is highly alarming to the uninitiated, but rest-assured, the bird feels nothing at this point.

5. Place the bird in the scalder. This is essentially a hot water bath, around 140F. The bird goes in for a minute or two, until the water has penetrated the feathers and reached the skin. The heat causes the pores the feathers grow out of to dilate, loosening the feathers. Ever smelled a wet, dead chicken? It's not far off from a wet dead rat.

6. Place the bird in the plucker. This is perhaps the most grisly part of the process. A plucker is a tub lined with rubber "fingers" that rotates the carcass. As the carcass makes contact with the rubber fingers, the feathers are pulled out. It is an odd bit of physics I don't fully understand, but it works. But it is slightly horrifying to see the body of a bird slowly shifts from something solid and defined into this naked thing, flopping about lifelessly and erratically. The plucker is this liminal space where the bird transforms from a chicken into meat. It is an eerie thing to behold.

7. Remove the head a feet. Use a big knife, find a joint, and whack. It makes you feel like a butcher. Or an axe murderer. But you know, in a macabre-humor sort of sense.

8. Gut. This is the most "involved" part of the process. If you've never gutted a chicken, you should. Essentially, you make an incision at the belly, just under the breastbone, pull the cavity open a bit, reach way in to find the esophagus, and gently but firmly pull out, bringing most everything else with you as you go. It is very important to be gentle with the intestines and to cut the "vent" or cloaca out carefully to prevent poo from landing on the meat (not for nothing is it called a cloaca-- latin for "sewer," so know where your blade is going!). You can also imagine why gutting might be the best job if you're butchering on a cold day.

It was suggested while we were working that instead of dissecting frogs in high school (a fairly pointless killing of an animal), students should gut chickens (I know, I can see the angry letters from parents now... but go with me here) and then eat them. If you're interested in what's inside a chicken, I highly recommend taking a look at this chapter on chicken anatomy from the University of Kentucky's Ag Extension. It is as beautiful as it is fascinating.

 9. Chill. Well, actually you rinse first, with a bit of cold water, inside and out to remove any excess blood and guts. Then chill the bird down in an ice bath to maintain freshness and facilitate freezing.

10. Pack. Take the bird out of the ice bath, shake off excess moisture, and put it in a thick, plastic bag (or vacuum sealer) and seal. This is where tool selection is vital. We thought we had the correct sealer for our bags, but they were too thick and would not go through the mechanism. So we taped each bag. By hand. Enjoy your "artisan" packaging!

Now, some of this sounds brutal, but the reality is that it is no more brutal than it has to be and a good deal less brutal for the chicken than a natural death might be. I've written here before about the ethics of killing animals for food, and my experiences have upheld my beliefs and understandings about this process over time: the cones, while seemingly unnatural actually calm the chickens rather well, while the cutting (if done with a sharp knife) is not very painful, and bleeding out is perhaps one of the most serene ways to to die. It is also an economic necessity for us farmers. When the birds are young, they eat a lot of feed, but don't lay any eggs. They basically live on the farm rent free for the first 4-5 months of their lives. At the end of their lives, we recoup that cost by selling the meat.

An wow, what meat it is! These birds are not your plump little roasters that you can put a lemon and a bay leaf in. No. They are scrawny, tough, taste strongly of chicken, and have great hunks of the yellowest, purest fat you can imagine: pure, distilled sunshine and grass. These birds are meant to be stewed. To be transformed from a boney carcass into the richest, most flavorful, most nutrient-dense broth you've ever had in. your. life. Seriously. This is the stuff of your grandmother's kitchen. I've been known to drink it with a straw. Here's why.

So all you egg-buyers out there! While you're waiting for our new crop of chickens to start laying in the spring, enjoy the hens who have been feeding you these past years in a different way! Come grab your stew hen at the Peacthree Rd Farmers' Market this Saturday until we sell out...

 

Good Grass.

Well, I've been sick for the past week. Flat-out-bed-rest-can't-move-drugged-up sick. It's the complete opposite of what my life has been like since we started making cheese. I've gone from day-in-day-out 10–12 hour days, juggling everywhich thing to a full, solid week of being unable to do anything at all. Full stop. The upshot is that I've been doing a lot of thinking in my convalescence. The seasons have started to shift, which is our usual cue to begin a more reflective, less active time of year. I've been cooking up projects and hammering out ideas for how things can move more smoothly next season.

I've been thinking a lot about the grass. I recently found myself saying to someone  that the grass is the indicator for all other aspects of the health of the farm. I believe this to be true. Our grass needs to be better. We have some spots where the sward is thin, where weeds are too many. Drought didn't help us. We ran out of grass just as the drought and high temperatures peaked in July, which was a bit of a shock after two years of not being able to keep up with the grass! Worms were terrible, a sign that the grass was poor this year—too short, not enough nutrition—we found ourselves grateful that we were able to supplement the ewes with hay and feed in the parlor. The ram lambs grew terribly and succumbed to worms constantly, despite our vigilant deworming program. It was as if the moment the dewormer left their system, the worms blossomed and the poor animals had nothing to fight back with. All these problems point back to the grass. Good grass means good nutrition, which means the animals can fight worm infections much, much better. Good grass means taller grass, since the worms can't climb the stem if it is longer than 8 inches. Good grass means high organic matter, which means better drought tolerance. But why did we not have these things? Listening to the Joel Salatins and Dennis Stoltzfooses of the world converted me to the gospel of grass: grass solves all feed problems on the farm. Rotational grazing is the paramount solution! And it is. But what I'm begining to see is that for the grass farming to do all its cracked-up to do, you have to get there first.

I had a bitter moment this summer when we ran out of grass and I had so many animals struggling. As I wrote the check for the hay I had to buy to keep my animals alive, I couldn't help but feel that I had been sold a bill of goods by the grassfarming movement. Why wasn't this working? We rotate daily using a moderate stocking density, we use chickens in our rotation... what was going on? Yes, we started grazing a bit early this Spring and should have waited until the sward had really taken hold. Maybe we could use a new fencing regimin to graze faster and at a higher destiny. But there was something else bothering me.

The answer came to me as I walked up and down the fields, looking down at the dry July grass, treading over the rise and fall of the terraces, formed to grow cotton, the last bush of which was still growing here less than 100 years ago. With a great wave of sadness, it occurred to me "that's where the fertility is." Gone to make cloth. Every last bit of it exported from the spot where I was standing lost in the great chain of commerce. I wanted to cry out at my forebears, "How dare you! How dare you leave me in this situation! Do you not know how hard it is to farm? How dare you make it even harder on those who are here now!" To understand my outrage, one first has to understand something about fertility.

Fertility is an abstract concept, but is firmly grounded in biological reality. In biology, the ability to reproduce is the pinnacle of life: if a life form has enough to not only continue on living itself, but to thrive, it can reproduce. This is, in a nutshell, fertility. Literally it means "to bear," as in to hold or carry. It is the ability of a living thing to carry on life: the carrying capacity for life. If there is not enough of the stuff a life form needs to go on living, then it dies or fails to reproduce. This is the absence of fertility. The fertility of a piece of land is related directly to the quantity of life it can bear. The quantity of life the land can sustain without input is directly related to the quantity of organic matter, that is poop (and other decaying things). Decay is the primary attractor for life. Microbes, bacteria, and fungi love organic matter and are essential to the propagation of plants growing in it. Microbes create and release nutrients in the soil so that plants can access them. Enough organic matter, especially if it is held together with lots of roots, and the soil acts as a sponge, holding in water. Not enough organic matter and you have hardpan: water trickles off the soil; roots can't take hold in it. Fertility can be directly measured by the quantity of organic matter in soil.

Getting fertility is a bit of a problem, because if you have more fertility, it's easier to get more. If you don't have much, it's hard to get. Think of it like an endowment at a school or big institution. The more money in the endowment, the more money the endowment can generate to create useful programs and provide scholarships. Then, more people are positively affected by the institution to give donations and grow the endowment. If a school has a small endowment, it is very hard to operate: hard to give scholarships, hard to attract the best teachers, and hard to ask people for more money. A school with a large endowment has a lot of fiscal fertility: it has more, so it can make and do more.

Here is the most important feature of an endowment: the school never spends the endowment itself, only the interest it throws off. Fertility in the land is no different. The land can be like a huge bank, holding fertility within it. If you have enough fertility, the land will throw off a kind of "interest" in the form of enough nutrition and water to support more life than what is needed in that specific place. This is the opportunity human beings seized upon with the advent of agriculture: the ability of a fertile piece of land to support more than could live on that one spot. We realized that we can work with nature to provide an endowment that better ensures our survival. But like its financial counterpart, fertility has to be properly managed if it is to remain effective. And so the words of Wendell Berry flooded my mind as I looked at the rolling terraces, seeing cotton where grass is now, harvested and exported, harvested and exported, fertility never to return:

Invest in the millennium.
Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion--put your ear close,
and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.

These words suggest the antidote to the spendthrift farming we have practiced now for generations. Most farms operate on a minimum of fertility. Grass is very poor because the fertility has been extracted by generations previous, so fertilizers are brought in along with hay or other feedstuffs to keep the animals alive. Most farms don't rotate, so whatever organic matter the stock leaves behind does not have time to set in before the cow, sheep, or goat comes back to take out more. Then the animal is sold off, typically to a feedlot where it is fed more fertility from elsewhere, then sold off again as meat to faraway places. It's as if one deposited money in an investment, but then kept coming back to take more money out before the investment matures.

No one in their right mind would expect good growth with such behavior. It's divestment in place of investment. It's bad business. The notion that what you can take out is directly related to what you put in is rendered irrelevant. Basic economics be damned to the false values of endless consumption. Farms have become pass-throughs for fertility, like some security exchanged and traded on Wall Street (which, by the by, is not for nothing called the stock market!). Instead they ought to be a place where fertility can be deposited and held and allowed to accumulate. I understand now why I have had to buy hay, why the grass is poor in places, and why my animals suffer from disease. I understand that I have to mitigate and provide crutches when trying to use a system that relies on fertility I don't have as much as it replenishes it. Because of what my forbears took away, I have to add inputs in order to get it back. I have to put in some of what they took out if I am to expect any kind of return on my investment in this land and in these animals. It's not something I fully accounted for emotionally, financially, or otherwise. But that said, it is my goal and the goal of our farm to leave the land better than when we got it.

Open House Today, Sunday, August 12 from 3 pm – 5pm

Live in Chatt Hills? … Gonna be in Chatt Hills this weekend? … Are you one of our customers at farmers' market? … Are you just plain curious about what we're up to?

Then come join us this Sunday from 3-5pm for our first-ever open house! We will have samples of our cheese accompanied by excellent wine. We will also be giving farm tours and answering questions. Come by and see us!

We're at 7850 Rico Rd, Chattahoochee Hills (Palmetto on some GPSes) GA 30268. There's a map and directions on our Contact page.

First Make

Yesterday, we made cheese. It was amazing.

Four Days

We've been milking for four days. Working our proverbial asses off. On Thursday we milked for five hours without stopping. On Friday I worked from 5am until 12am, eight of those hours were spent in the milking parlor. On Saturday things eased a little: we got down to four hours of milking. Today we milked for three hours and hinted at that blessed goal: a rhythm. I've been kicked and bruised and and pushed around by my sheep. I've been soaked in their shit and piss and blood and milk. I've cried once or twice, not from anger or from frustration, nor from any other miserable state that I'd have expected, but rather, from a kind of ecstatic exhaustion. And I know now, more than ever, this is exactly what I want to do. I feel this work in every part of me. It is hard work. It is transforming and shaping work. It is an angle grinder, taking your hard edges, the things that make you jagged and mean and just blasts them away by the hot virtues of pressure and friction, making everything that was stopping you, everything that was holding you back disappear in a shower of sparks.

As they say, pressure makes diamonds. These few days have seen our first few handfuls.

Sentiment and Sentimentality

I haven't really slept in three days. That's how I know lambing is now in full swing. Little creatures have been hitting the ground since New Years Day and slowly but surely ramping up to now. As Ross so aptly put it, it's like popping popcorn: first there's one or two, then a pause, then one or two, then a pause, then five or ten, then a pause, then more than you can count before it tapers off again. I've said it here before, but I'll say it again, lambing is simultaneously really energizing and devastatingly draining. The oscillations between life and death can send us emotionally reeling. Worse still, our self-judgements of our relative success (when a lamb lives) or failure (when a lamb dies) are crazy-making. Ross and I are both guilty of ascribing judgements to the forces of nature playing out their grim realities, realities that are ultimately out of our control. It is hard to absolve onself of the overwhelming feeling of personal responsibility when a lamb dies, and when one lives, it's as if nature has somehow has cut us a break. But this notion is, of course, absurd. This is nature at work, and while we shepherds play a role, its influence is minimal. In the sleep-deprived space of a few days of lambing, it's very hard to keep such a level perspective and all our ambitions can evaporate into a feeling of pure futility. Here's what I mean: About a week ago, Ross went out around midnight to help a ewe in labor. It was our first set of triplets, ever. Triplets are not uncommon in sheep, and it is equally common for one or two of the three to not survive. In this case, the first baby died minutes after birth. The second came out fine, and the third had some respiratory problems; as if she aspirated on fluids a little bit on the way out. Ross put them in the claiming pen (a little pen on pasture that contains mama and babies to assist with bonding and to keep the babies from wandering off). One lambs was doing great, the other was clearly struggling. Then, in a horrifying stroke, the stronger of the two lambs turned up dead after having drowned in his mothers' water bucket. We were momentarily devastated. It was an obvious mistake to leave the water bucket on the ground (who'd have thought the lamb could jump in there without also knocking the thing over?). Ross took it in pretty good stride, saying that for once it was clear what went wrong and what can be done to prevent it in the future. I really allowed myself to despair pretty intensely. The work we were doing felt totally pointless. Then, in that moment, I thought of my vegetable farming friends. I remember how Paige and Justin at Serenbe Farms talk about when entire crops die: weeks and weeks of growing and work and then suddenly comes some blight, some pest, or some unknown something and the whole thing goes up in smoke. I remembered William at W.A. Hennessy Farm down the road from us saying that something happens almost every day that makes you question the value of this whole enterprise of farming. And most of all, I remembered Joe and Judith of Love is Love, whose farm was completely destroyed in a flood nearly three years ago… and yet they still farm, they still grow, they still make it happen. Their perseverance especially acted as a salve for me in that rough moment. I remembered that I can do this.

Then, three nights ago I went out for the 11pm shift to check on the ewes. One huge ewe was clearly laboring and having difficulties. I called Ross out and together we got her two lambs out. The first one needed some help getting going. She wasn't breathing right away and some quick pats and shakes had no effect. Ross preformed the "swing" technique wherein one literally swings the lamb by its hindquarters in a circle to help shake out mucous from the lungs and to give the lamb a little adrenaline boost. Amusingly, Ross preformed this task with a lubricated OB glove still on and so the lamb slipped and went a-flying like a gangly, multi-legged bowling ball. It was a brief moment of panic, but the lamb was no worse for the wear and was actually a good bit livelier for it! The second lamb followed shortly thereafter with minimal assistance. Mama and babies seemed to be bonding well (licking, nuzzling, making sweet little sheep cooing noises), and so we left. Ross went on to bed, but I went back out around 1:00 am to check on things. One of the babies was missing. I searched around by the light of my headlamp, trying to be as un-frantic as possible. Thankfully, the little guy turned up pretty quickly and I brought him to his mama and sister. After watching them together for a few minutes, I could see the new babies were having a lot of trouble nursing. The mama's udders were still high (they usually drop low close to the time of birth because they start producing milk and so the lambs can access them easily) and the lambs were having a lot of difficulty finding the teat. In an effort to make sure these lambs would make it through the night, I ran back home to thaw some frozen sheep colostrum (that amazing first milk that jump-starts baby mammals and initiates the immune system) from a ewe whose lamb died last spring. I figured a little colostrum would get them through the night at least, then we could work out what to do in the morning. I braced myself for what could be a very, very long night if they did not take to the bottle or if the lambs had gotten lost again. When I returned to the farm, bottle-in-hand (around 2:30am) I was immensely relieved to find both babies merrily sucking away! The happiness, the gratitude I felt was just wonderful. Despite not having to be out bottle-feeding in the night, I was so wound up from the intensity, the oscillations between anxiety and relief, that it took me until about 5:00 am to fall asleep.

Everything seemed to be humming along smoothly until about 2:00 am the next night. Ross went out to check on things and returned with one dead lamb and one severely hypothermic. Apparently the mama ewe of these twins had abandoned them in the night. This happens sometimes. Bonding in mammals is a delicate hormonal balance and if for whatever reason those hormones are not triggered, they will not mother properly. Something was clearly wrong with this ewe. Her udders never properly dropped, and while it was clear that her babies did get some colostrum and had some initial success nursing, it seems mama's milk never fully came in. We don't know why and have rulled out the usual suspects (retained placenta, etc.). At any rate, Ross spent the better part of that night alternately dunking the hypothermic lamb in warm water and then blowing him with a hair dryer and rubbing him vigorously. Finally, Ross was able to get a few onces of milk replacer in him and the little guy has now made a full recovery (but will be a bottle baby, for sure).

With lambs now dropping daily and nightly, we are in full swing with the first round. Hopefully we will see a lull in the next two weeks to recover for a bit before our second group gets going. Through the sleepless haze, we are working to keep this perspective: we are not great actors in this drama. We are custodians. Our job is to provide a space for things to be when they work, and to minimize the damage and clean up the mess when they don't. The degree of emotional detachment needed to do this is hard to learn. In farming there is much sentiment, but little room for sentimentality (apologies to Lady Edith and Julian Fellowes) and it is a very fine line between the two.

 

Big News!

Check it out! After weeks and weeks and weeks and months and months and months of sisyphean effort, on Friday we got our foundation permit. We can move dirt, put in conduit and plumbing, and pour a pad. Next week (sometime) we should be fully permitted for the structure. I can hardly let myself believe it!

lessons learned in lambing (or, reproduction is risky)

Lambing. Lambing is so many things. It really can run the emotional gamut: from elation and joy watching the little fluffers leap and bound, to quiet peacefulness watching a ewe give birth, to high anxiety and fear when there is a complication, frustration when you just don't know what to do or can't get the thing needed to help. For us, in our first year, it really was trial by fire. Nothing has taught us about the difficulty of growing food the way lambing has. It really is a miracle that life regenerates itself so successfully so much of the time in the face of so much that can and will go wrong. And nowhere else is the farmer's charge to care more apparent.

All in all, lambing went remarkably well. In terms of number have some 50 babies (some of which have by now grown into monstrously large über-lambs), with about a 20/30 split in girls to boys. It's a success that, as first time lambers, is nothing to sneeze at. However, we took some truly ugly hits. We lost 1 lamb in birth, 1 the day after she was born (probably to clostridium), and 1 after several days to unknown causes. Lamb loss is almost inevitable, but what was really awful was that we lost five Katadhin ewes: 2 to complications from vaginal prolapse, 2 to instances of ringwomb (!!!), and 1 to complications from mastitis. We have no idea what caused the ringwomb, but we feel strongly that the other losses could have been prevented with more experience and better advice, mostly about what kinds of antibiotics to keep on-hand. Not having a farm vet who will service our area is a huge obstacle. We drove back and forth to Athens, GA to the vet school at UGA I don't even remember how many times dealing with all these issues. We do have one local-ish vet, but he's still 45 minutes away and the quality of care is much, much less then what we get from the vets at UGA. Having antibiotics and other drugs on-hand during lambing is pretty much a given. Most lambing kit lists will just give the recommendation to have "antibiotics," which is pretty meaningless. Without a good vet who will come out and see the animal, complications are like walking into a huge library where you know there is a book you really, really need, but there's no librarian and no card catalogue: it is frustration laced with panic (especially since the animal will likely die without the information and tools specific to her need) that causes one to shoot in the dark with what tools one has, and then resign oneself to having done all that could be done when it fails. It is not fun.

So, to hedge against this fate next season, as well as in hopes of helping others to a less stressful, more successful lambing season, here is a list of the major issues that occurred and what we have found to be the remedy:

Lambing went on way too long: We made the horrible mistake of putting the first ram in with the ewes in October, and not taking out the last ram until December. Don't do this! A good rule of thumb is for every day the ram is in with the ewes, there will be a night you will have to be awake every 2-4 hours during lambing. For the first two weeks, energy was good and excitement was high. However, as the weeks wore on to four weeks, then six weeks, the temptation to just let it go and sleep an extra hour or two was overwhelming. Of course, that would inevitably be the cold, rainy night that we would go out and a lamb would be halfway out with a leg caught and we'd have to pull it, so we persisted in our vigils.  I remember when we went to the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium a couple of years ago; a guy from Pfizer was there promoting a new drug that synchronizes oestrus in sheep, thus allowing them all to get pregnant at more-or-less the same time. I remember thinking, why on earth would you need such a thing? Well, now I know! If the ewes get pregnant at the same time, they will lamb at more-or-less the same time, thus shortening the length of time one must be awake all night (though perhaps adding to the intensity of those fewer nights).

If you know anything about us, you know there's no way we're giving our animals proprietary hormone therapy just so we don't have to stay up all night. Fortunately, the natural way to do this is to keep a ram across the fence from the ewes for about two weeks. His presence will cause the ewes to go into oestrus. Then, drop another ram in with the girls and let him do his job for another two weeks. Then replace that ram with a "clean-up" ram to catch any of the girls not yet serviced for another two weeks AND NOT A DAY LONGER.

Lambing on pasture:  I always thought that the primary purpose of lambing in a barn was to protect fragile, wet, little newborn lambs from the cold of January, February, and March (usual lambing months). With our mild winters here in Georgia, it doesn't make a lot of sense to deal with building winter housing and all that goes with that, mainly lots of cleaning and dealing with the piles of manure that accrue. That said, I clearly see one major benefit of lambing in the barn: access. We spent a lot of nights wandering amongst the sheep, looking for signs of labor, and then, if a ewe was in labor and needed assistance, we had the grand task of chasing her, catching her, ting her to a fencepost, and then assisting her. Needless to say, this situation caused a lot of unnecessary trauma both for us and for the ewe in need. The remedy will be a project for this fall. We will be building pasture jugs for the ewes. As the ewe comes close to her due date, set her up in the jug with plenty of hay and water. That way we know where the mama is, can attend to her if needed, and she and her lamb can bond more readily.

Complications from vaginal prolapse: I've covered this in some detail in a previous post. Here is what we learned: as soon as you start to see prolapse, act. Delay, even just 12 hours, can greatly increase the likelihood of infection. We watched two ewes succumb to infection who did not have to had we just had enough prolapse retainers on-hand. We thought two or three would suffice, but when we had upwards of 5 prolapsed ewes, two or three was not going to cut it. We had to wait on shipping while the infection bloomed. We called a vet who recommended Banamine, but it too would have to be ordered. We gave them electrolytes, injections of Naxel, and watched them, along with their lambs within, die. The remedy for us now is simple, if you don't have a vet, you are the vet. Keep an extra stash of everything and get any drugs you might need from a vet well ahead of time, even if you think you won't need it, even if you've been advised by others that you won't need it. No two lambing seasons are alike. You will need it all.

Prior to lambing, we hunted around for good lists of equipment needed for lambing. Most of them contained the basics: the arm-length OB gloves, syringes, iodine, sutures, lube, rope for pulling, etc. Here's what none of the lists had that we found we really, really needed:

1) Headlamp. Seriously. Get two, the LED kind, and some backup batteries. Put one in your lambing kit and one in the barn as backup. Leave your flashlight at home.

2) Emergency Drugs. Banamine, CD antitoxin, and Spectam specifically. Had we had the Banamine, I'm confident we could have saved three of our ewes. Had we had the CD antitoxin, we could have saved a lamb.

3) Prolapse Retainers. More than two of both the spoon kind and the harness kind. If we had just two more of these, we could have saved two of our ewes.

4) Halters with Ties. How are you going to hold on to that ewe who needs her lamb pulled, huh? You got two extra arms to hold her while performing veterinary obstetrical maneuvers? Yeah, that's what I thought.

5) Udderly EZ. Unless you're a very skilled hand-milker, don't mess around with hand-milking in the middle of the night to get a lamb fed if mama isn't taking up with baby quick enough. This little device is a godsend.

6) Colosturm Replacer and Milk Replacer. Backup is essential.

7) Large Animal Crate. A dog shipping crate is what we use to transport single animals to the vet. It is one of our most essential tools.

8 ) Small Animal Crate. In case you need to transport a lamb for any reason. Seriously, don't mess around with putting them in a big crate were they can stand up and get jostled around.

Also, some terrific advice we got: if you have a ewe whose lamb dies or does not otherwise bond with her, milk out her colostrum and freeze it. You'll be glad to have it on hand later in the season or next season.

These lessons were incredibly hard. Nothing we have done in farming so far has taken such a physical and emotional toll on us. Plenty of times Ross and I had short tempers and bleak outlooks. As one of our farming mentors wisely advised, never make any long-term decisions during lambing, your whole perspective becomes addled with sleeplessness and stress. It's really true and another good lessoned learned in this process.

Lambing is an ego-tester. What I mean by that is one's sense of control and confidence gets stripped away; what you think you know, you find out you don't know at all. In biology there is no such thing as "always" and "never", there are no rules, only shoddy, malleable guidelines. Nowhere is that reality more apparent then in reproduction. Reproduction is risky. In the great genetic shuffle, it is inevitable that some part of it will, at some point, go wrong and the good farmer will, inevitably, feel responsible. Of course, unless there is true neglect going on, the farmer isn't really responsible for any of it. But we feel so, horribly responsible. We feel this way because we are beholden to care. It is our charge to care for these creatures, it is our job to help soften the blows of nature for our stock, as well as for ourselves. Sometimes there is meaning and a lesson to be learned. Sometimes there isn't. A huge part of farming is learning where that line is.

The truth of the matter is, if it weren't for our nightly vigils, checking for labor, assisting lambs in need, we would have easily lost a dozen or more lambs; yet the night there was a stillbirth, we we thought, if only we had gotten here a half-an-hour ago, did we miss this ewe in labor at the last check? Was some part of her feed/mineral intake wrong? Did she grow too much, not enough? We endlessly consternated when anything went wrong, trying to find a reason why, trying to find meaning in what happened, trying to find where the blame belonged. But there wasn't anything to blame. What was there, though, was a lesson. As I held the ewe and calmly stroked her and spoke softly to her, Ross pulled the dead lamb out. It was the first time he ever pulled a lamb, dead or alive. As he pulled, the shoulders broke with a sickening crunch. Horrible though it was (and it was), Ross now knew exactly how hard he could pull, exactly where the point of doing harm was; this was vital information that lead to getting all the living lambs that needed puling out safely. We will never know why that stillbirth or many of the other things that went wrong went wrong. But we will be damned if we don't try to learn from them what we can.

 

it's supposed to be hard

For the past two years, the second weekend in March we have attended the annual Georgia Organics Conference. We've loved going to this conference for the inspiration, camaraderie, and learning opportunities that are typically abundant, but this year we didn't go. This year, instead of buckets of inspiration, we spent the weekend at the University of Georgia getting sacks full of "this is really hard." Friday morning, we had a ewe who had lost a bag of waters, but whose labor had completely halted. Ross and I went out to catch her, and I performed an internal exam to see if she perhaps had a stuck lamb that needed assistance. So, I lubed my arm-length glove and found that there was no lamb in the birth canal and that I could only get two fingers into her cervix. I gave the tissue a gentle massage to see if it would give, but it felt completely taut and would not soften. We called our friend Nancy Osborn of Cordero Farms who has years of sheep and lambing experience. She advised us to seek out a vet at this point. Unfortunately, there is a real dearth of large animal vets in Georgia (unless you're talking horses) and none who will come out to our farm. So, we packed her up and drove 2 hours up to the vet school at UGA. The vet performed an ultrasound and found that the lamb, much to our collective surprise, was still alive.

They also confirmed that her cervix was only partly dilated and was not going to go any farther. She had a condition called "ringwomb" (more on that in a moment). The only way to have a chance to save both of them was to preform an emergency c-section. This was a tough choice that really tested the ethics of our business. Surgery on any animal is costly, and as a start-up business without a lot of income, it's pretty prohibitive, but it was a choice between letting this animal and her lamb die or the possibility of saving one or both. The value of both the lamb and the ewe together was more than the cost of the surgery, but if one or both died in the process, we would be losing a serious amount of money. If one or both lived, the financial loss would be less, and frankly, so would the weight on our hearts. So, we gave the green light to perform the surgery.

After the lamb was born, the vets insisted on keeping them overnight for observation. At first, the ewe seemed to be recovering and was letting the lamb nurse, but by the next morning she was rapidly deteriorating. She was developing sepsis from failure to pass the afterbirth (in sheep, unlike humans, the placenta is attached in such a way that it can't be taken out without killing the ewe; it has to detach on its own). On top of this, the lamb seemed to have suffered from hypoxia before he was born and was a bit listless and weak. Furthermore, the ewe was no longer interested in her lamb, she was so ill. The vet asked us what we wanted to do. The ewe would need substantial medical interventions at this point and even with these treatments, the prognosis was not good. Ross and I had already made the decision that this ewe would never breed again and if she lived, we would cull her for meat in the fall. But the infection was too much to do this, so instead of letting her slowly, painfully die of infection, we opted to euthanize her (we could not have taken her to the slaughterhouse due to the infection and to the presence of strong antibiotics in her system). Retrieving her lamb later Saturday afternoon was heartbreaking. He was all curled up under a heat lamp sleeping and we were told was taking to the bottle, but weakly. We took him home and made a little space for him in our bathroom where we could look after him.

Then, early Monday morning, Ross went out at 4:00am for the usual ewe check to see if anyone was in labor or if there were any new lambs on the ground. He reported that there was a new lamb and that another ewe was in labor. When he went back out around 6:00am, the ewe had lost a bag of waters, but there was no lamb and she was not in labor. We both went out to her around 7:00am, and I did an internal exam. I felt the lamb move, but her cervix was not open. A few hours later, Ross did another internal exam: ringwomb. Again. This time, because we knew what we were dealing with and it was a weekday, we went to a vet that was a little closer. The lamb was lost. We had to euthanize the ewe.

What the hell was going on? We've already had unusual reproductive problems in the form of an abnormally high number of vaginal prolapses (two ewes died from complications just a few days before all of this) and now two ewes with a truly rare anomaly, ringwomb. Oddly, the problems have all been with our Katahdins, sheep known for being especially hardy and easy lambers. The breeder we got these ewes from said that he'd never seen ringwomb in his flock in 20 years of breeding. Unfortunately, there is almost no research on ringwomb or its pathology. Some folks suggest it is a mineral deficiency. Others say it's genetic in the ewe. Still others say it is linked to the phenotype of the fetus and is linked to the ram. We have no idea, but we are putting a call into the ruminant reproduction specialist at UGA. We are going to do a complete nutritional analysis of our winter feed and mineral, just to see if there is an outstanding deficiency. We've also considered it could be something odd in our breeding. We've crossed these two Katahdin ewes with our East Friesian rams. It's possible, especially if there is a link between ringwomb and the fetus itself, that something strange happened in the cross. We will work on this, but I'm prepared for the reality that we may never know. I will certainly pray it never happens again.

Since then, we've had the successful birth of a whole crop of lambs. When 9030, aka “Big Mama”, our alpha ewe, dropped a set of healthy female twins, Ross and I both got a big boost of confidence that helped to heal our frayed nerves and quell our anxieties about our ability to do this work. Of the many things we've been learning from this experience, the thing that keeps coming into my mind is just how hard it is to grow food. Lambing has made it very, very clear to me just what we're getting into starting a farm; how risky it really is; how dependent on the unknown. The loss of four ewes, the vet bills, the unusual number of prolapses, plus the looming onset of parasites this summer; it all made me question the value of trying to start a small-scale farm. I wondered if our farm would ever amount to anything more than the product of a boutique industry. I was reminded of a quotation I once read from Edwin Land, who co-founded Polaroid: “Don't undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” While what we are doing most certainly meets the criteria of “nearly impossible,” I have to ask if what we're doing is manifestly important. We could keep buying food from the grocery store indefinitely, at least for our lifetime. Big farms aren't so bad. If we really do need small farms, somebody else can build them, right? Right? Of course not. But when things get tough it's hard not to doubt. Heck, it's important to doubt. Doubting, at least in this instance, helps to define what's important. It helps to identify where to place your faith. I was reminded by all this difficulty that what we are doing, despite the fact that it is nearly impossible, is also manifestly important.

We were tested in this experience: we already knew we were in love with the idea and ideal of farming along with all the hard work it entails, but what we didn't know was if we were in love with the idea and ideal of farming with all it's hard work along with the failures and the inevitable feelings frustration and doubt they generate. Ross went out for the 4:00am check the other night. There was a lamb being born. Its nose and feet were out, but it appeared to be stuck there. Ross spent 45 minutes trying to catch her to help pull the lamb. He called me at home, angry and frustrated and worried sick that this lamb would be dead, that he should have thought of a better way to catch her, and upset that he had not learned to use a shepherds crook from boyhood as they do in New Zealand and Wales. Fifteen minutes later he called me back: he had caught the ewe, pulled the lamb, and successfully resuscitated it. That's the beauty of failure, if you can push beyond it, things suddenly start to work.

In lambing, we are going through a kind of rite of passage . We have to remember that this is hard and it's supposed to be. We are being pushed outside of what is safe and comfortable. After a year of of farming, of setting things up, of shaping our land and our stock the way we want, of dreaming and thinking, we are finally really, truly working and we're letting the work shape us.

Shear Madness!

I know, I know, that pun has so been done, but I had to. We spent all of yesterday shearing our 30 wooly sheep (the rest are Katadhins, which are hair sheep, and so they shed).  On the referral of our friend Robin who works at the Atlanta zoo, we hired Randy Pinson, pretty much the last and only sheep shearer in Georgia. Under his confident and gentle hands, each sheep parted with its wool while we watched, asked questions, and began to learn how all this is done. Shearing really is quite an art form. You've got to know exactly how to handle the sheep in order to have clear access to its body without hurting or causing undue stress to the animal; you've got to work the fleece so that it all comes off in one, whole piece; you've got to have the physical strength to stay bent over the sheep for hours; and you've got to have a light but firm hand so as to get the wool cut without cutting the sheep's skin. It's not really something that can be learned from a book or by being told. It's something you've got to watch and practice. You've got to cultivate the "feel" for it.

It was so cute and so sad to see our big fluffy critters reduced so much in bulk in just a few short minutes. Some of them just looked completely pathetic afterwards, but it will all be back in just a few short months!

We also took some time to do some basic care: replacing ear tags, body condition scoring, FAMACHA scoring, and any necessary de-worming. We bagged the wool and now are left with the task of figuring out what to do with it. The original plan was alway to sell the wool as industrial-grade for carpets, felt, etc. However, we've had so much interest from handspinners and knitters that we are looking into selling whole fleeces, making roving for spinning, and of course, making yarn. In the meantime, I am taking it upon myself to start a project of taking one of the fleeces and seeing it through to a knitted garment, or sheep-to-shawl, as it is sometimes called. I will document the progress here on the blog over the next few weeks. My goal is to be done by the time we start milking in late spring (!!!). Y'all help keep me to it!