Heirloom Meals: Savoring Yesterday's Traditions Today

Thursday December 16, 2010

Heirloom Breeds & Seeds:
Early Winter Challenges and Pregnant Ewes

Of course the snow and the cold just couldn't hold off until the sheep were
settled for the winter, so I've been bundling up and just trudging ahead
with everything that needs to be done. The water freezes in the barn
nightly, so I added a heat tape. This doesn't mean the pipe doesn't freeze
anymore, it just takes a few minutes for the heat tape to work and the water
to run. I have the water pipe heavily insulated as well. Once the sheep are
in the barn, there will be enough body heat to keep the pipe from freezing.
I have to turn off the power to the barn at night when I leave for safety,
but when the lambs come, if we need it, the power can be on. Considering the
hayloft is above where the sheep live, it is a good idea not to tempt the
fates with a potential barn fire.

I'm closer to being completely ready for the pregnant ewes to move into the
barn. I've built some pens and filled in the gutters so the sheep don't fall
and trip. The girls have finished their hay aftermath grazing and they are
ready to move in. Tomorrow I will finish setting things up and bring inside
the ewes that will lamb in February/March. The "open" ewes, the ones who
aren't pregnant are out in the pasture with llamas, horse and donkey. We'll
add Happy the ram to the ewe flock this weekend and leave him in to breed
for 20 days.

Speaking of breeding, Nancy the Ultrasound lady was here Monday and we
scanned all 123 ewes to check for pregnancy and to see how many lambs they
were carrying. My Mom did the recordkeeping, Harvey spray painted the
shoulders of the pregnant ewes so we could tell them apart from the non
pregnant ewes, Kevin ran the gate letting sheep in and out, Nancy scanned
and I caught sheep. Boy did I sleep well that night! It took us about 3 1/2
hours to scan everyone. Ultrasound scanning isn't an exact science, but the
numbers we came up with are pretty good all the same. 68 ewes are bred. Of
those 36 are carrying singles and 32 are carrying twins. So about 100 lambs
total. These lambs will be born February through March 2011.

The next group of ewes (that will begin breeding this weekend) will lamb
sometime in May. Whoever doesn't get bred out of that group will be kept
with the ram and will form our fourth breeding group to lamb in July.

Thursday December 09, 2010

Heirloom Breeds & Seeds:
New Farm Store and Meet the Sheep Dog and Tractor

So, the move went well - all four days of it. All Ways Moving in Pittsfield
has the greatest crew of guys - each one taller, stronger, more handsome and
nicer than the next! The red little house I rented for the winter in
Pittsfield is packed full, the garage at my ex's is packed full and the
contents of my farm store has even spilled over into his office space. Boy,
it is amazing how much stuff I have! I guess that is what happens when you
add up the four bedroom house with basement and attic, a barn, a greenhouse,
a shed and a farm store.

Speaking of farm store, I'll be setting up a new "farm store space" at the
office/garage on S. Merriam St. in Pittsfield this winter. It will be open a
couple of afternoons a week or by appointment and I'll have all of the
wonderful cuts of lamb, gorgeous hand dyed yarns and luxurious silky
sheepskins everyone loves, available for sale. There's even enough room for
me to set up my big loom! Check my website sometime in February for more
information. Maybe, if life is settled in nicely I'll even be able to have a
couple of fiber workshops there in March!

The sheep are all doing well. They are still out grazing in the pasture -
this little bit of snow hasn't slowed them down a bit. The nice thing about
snow is that I don't have to bring them water every day. They much prefer to
eat the clean, fresh snow and don't bother with the water in the tanks. Of
course, snow means I have to slog through it as I reset the fences to give
the girls fresh grazing, but I would rather slog through snow, than mud.

Dolly, our Blue Heeler who was born and raised in North Carolina has been
having the best time in the snow. She loves to bite it and go sniffing
through it after moles in the grass. Jynx, our Border Collie is an old hand
at snow, and he doesn't play in it as much as she does. He would rather just
get to work. The dogs and barn cats are spending the winter at the barn
where the pregnant ewes will be. The rental house is "no pets," but the
landlord did allow us to have Pumpkin Kitty, so he is an indoor cat for this
winter. I think he has gained 2 pounds this week alone since all he does now
is eat and sleep.

Nancy, the ultrasound technician is coming to pregnancy check the ewes on
the 13th. Then we'll have an idea of how many ewes will be lambing, when
they will lamb and how many lambs they are carrying. Knowing this helps us
feed them properly, provide them with adequate shelter before lambing and
gives me an idea of what my farmers market sales might be looking like next

Today I reached the 500 hour mark on my tractor. My sweet little Kubota has
only worked about 100 hours per year, what an easy life for a tractor! Today
it worked hard. I cleaned out the bunk silo at the farm I am renting for the
winter for the sheep. I'll store their wrapped bales of hay in it. The first
load of wrapped bales arrives tomorrow. I better remember to bring my
checkbook with me to pay for them. I purchase all my wrapped bales from the
Leabs at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. Don Leab knows how to grow good feed
and it makes better business sense for me to purchase my winter feed than to
make the capital investment in equipment and still have to worry about the
weather; than to try to harvest it myself.

Until next week, I'll be unpacking boxes and readying the barn for the

Thursday December 02, 2010

Heirloom Breeds & Seeds:
Lisa’s History in Her Own Words

Greetings Heirloom Meals Blog Readers!

I’m Lisa Dachinger, the Farmer at River Valley Farm and you will be getting a unique behind the scenes look at life on a sheep farm once a week. I raise sheep for lamb and wool. My sheep adventures began in 2000, with me asking my daughter Jennifer (who was 8 years old at the time) if she would like to do a 4H project. For those who don’t know what 4H is, here is a link http://www.mass4h.org/ - The project I proposed was a market lamb project. This would consist of obtaining a weaned lamb ( a lamb who no longer needed its mother), feeding it and exhibiting it at livestock shows through the summer and then at the end of the summer, there would be a “big” show with an auction and the lamb would be sold “to market” and Jennifer would be paid for the lamb. Since she was already experienced at showing her chickens, goats and pony, she eagerly agreed to do the project. That first market lamb was “Diego” and he lived a very pampered life. Jennifer fed Diego only the best of hay and grains, he always had the cleanest water bucket and he even received daily “massages” from her, to ensure he would be very tender for whoever purchased him when he went “to market.” Long story short, Jenn took the majority of blue ribbons that entire summer and at the last “big “ show not only did she take all the blue ribbons in the classes she entered, but she also took Reserve Champion at the final competition. She had raised that lamb so well (yes, I did help a little) and so perfectly, that even the show judge entered bids on the lamb (though no other lamb) during the auction.

The hook was set – market lambs were good, fun and could be profitable – and we were beginning to fall in love with sheep. The next 4H project was the “bred ewe.” This project takes you through raising a weaned female sheep to reproduction age, then breed it and experience having a baby lamb. Jenn took her hard earned dollars and invested them in “Cinnamon” a purebred California Red Sheep. Now, a sheep is a flock creature and should not live all alone, so of course more sheep had to be purchased to keep her company. Then, some sheep needed a “good home,” then some other sheep were bought and then there were a whole lot of sheep that needed fostering until a new home could be found – and of course, there were new baby lambs being born as well - and before I knew it – there were 100 sheep running around! This was too many, something needed to be done. So, a business was born – shear the sheep and spin the wool to yarn, take the extra lambs to the butcher and sell the meat at the Farmers Market. Okay – we were on to something.

But still, there were too many sheep. Homes were eventually found for the sheep that needed fostering and we settled on having 25 ewes (females) and a couple of rams (boys) so we would have a continuous supply of market lambs and wool. That worked ok for a few years, until there were several food and meat recalls from industrial food production - then demand at the farmers markets took off for grass-fed, locally produced meats. Twenty-five sheep was not enough, we upped the numbers to 45. That was good for meeting customer demand, but there was a downside. Having got caught up in sheep so intensely caused me to lose focus in my other farming ventures and in my personal life. Divorce followed in 2008.

Now what? I had 45 sheep, a good customer base, but not nearly enough sales to pay all the bills, let alone make a living. Well, I thought, I would sell the house, find a new farm, raise more sheep and eventually the numbers were going to turn in my favor. On paper it looked good, but where to go? I didn’t want to leave Berkshire County – I had a small child to consider and my parents and grandfather retired here so we could all be close geographically.

I networked and looked around for a new farm – Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden Counties – over in NY – Columbia and Rennselaer Counties. A few potential prospects, but I needed to sell my house first and the housing market tanked, so no go. Then, after two years, the market began a brief turnaround and with the greatest Real Estate Broker Carole Murko (who also happens to be my dear friend) and a lot of “letting go,” I accepted an offer on the house in early September of this year. I was on my way!!!

With an accepted offer on the house, I reconnected with my network, knowing I was ready and able to move to a new place and build my sheep business. Russ and Jan Clark (brother and sister) in Richmond, MA had been living on their family farm after their mother passed away, growing some pumpkins, sweet corn and hay. During our many visits and conversations, Russ mentioned he liked haying, but would rather work 20 acres, than 100. He is a yacht captain by trade and didn’t want to continue putting in so much time on the farm. Jan said she enjoyed the market gardening, but was getting a little tired of it and would like to consider doing other things with her time as she had a part-time job in town as well. The farm had been in their family for four generations and they were very attached to the idea that it remain a farm and they didn’t want to see houses all over it.

This is where today’s blog gets interesting…………..

Since I needed a farm and the Clarks were looking to “not farm so much” anymore, we had several meetings and discussed ways on how we could all work together and yet, still keep the farm, a farm and not houses, since it was located in a very desirable area for potential residential development. We agreed that I would rent the house, barn and land on the East side of the road for several years as I built my sheep business and during that time I would assist them in placing the property into an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (which would pay them for the “development rights” in exchange for a deed restriction allowing agricultural pursuits only) and then I would purchase the property for its “production value,” which was to be determined (production value is just that – monetary value that is produced by the land. If the land is suitable for growing corn, then it is the value of a corn crop. If it is suitable for growing hay, then the value is of the hay crop, etc.).

We had a deal – we were all in agreement. They even offered me the use of their farm name “Clover Hill Farm” to keep the history of their family farm alive.

Out of the blue, an opportunity to purchase a flock of 83 sheep ( and build my sheep business that much quicker) arose – perfect timing! I put a deposit on the sheep and asked to finalize the deal once my house had sold and I had the cash to pay for them. Done – and I also could purchase equipment with the sheep, because I would be building a new sheep barn in the spring to house all of the sheep and lambs that would follow.

Shortly thereafter, I received a phone call from the American Lamb Board (lamb trade organization) who tells me they are beginning a new National Ad Campaign called Shepherd to Chef and would I be interested in being the Shepherd for a Boston chef? I explained my situation, the move, the new sheep and when were they starting the campaign? February – perfect! That is when we will start having our next bunch of lambs. Wow, this is all coming together!! New farm, bigger business, a major marketing campaign and all I need to do is show up!?

Sounds really amazing right? Yup – too good to be true… as I was to find out the hard way.

Fast forward to the week of the house closing. I’ve been packing and moving equipment and “stuff” over to the Clarks while the “paperwork” is at the lawyers being finalized. The night before I move in, we meet again and everything is fine – or so it seems – aside from waiting for the paperwork to sign. I tell them I have thought long and hard about a new farm name and how does “Clover Hill Sheep Company” sound? They are ecstatic - history lives on!

I move in the next morning as they are moving stuff out – a little hectic, the rain doesn’t help, but hey – this is going to be great! I can highly recommend All-Ways Moving in Pittsfield, MA – the crew was fantastic! Respectful, careful and helped me to keep my sanity. I spent my first night on the new farm. The sheep hadn’t arrived yet, they were still grazing in Lenox. The plan is for them to remain there until the grass is all eaten, then they will come to the new farm and we will put up a temporary shelter for them for the winter.

A couple of days after moving in, Russ drops by to see how we are doing and mentions he has spoken to his attorney, who has advised him to return the rent check; that it cannot be accepted. That is strange, I thought. I call my attorney, who then tries to get in touch with their attorney (can you see where this is leading?). A few days after that, I receive an email from my attorney that he has forwarded me from their attorney. The deal the Clarks and I had agree upon is no more and the new deal quadruples the rent, reduces the lease to one year and at the end of that year I am to purchase the house and property for $1,000,000. Wow – what happened? I don’t think I will ever know the entire story…….

I went and spoke with Russ and asked him what had happened. I reminded him why we had made the deal we did (I had very little cash, needed to build the sheep business to qualify for a mortgage, it would take time to get the property into APR, etc) and he basically blamed it all on his attorney and said he and his sister just really didn’t want to be in the Berkshires anymore, and they really just wanted to sell the property. Great, thanks – you couldn’t have had this revelation BEFORE I MOVED IN????

I told him it was not possible for me to purchase the property under the terms that had just been presented to me, since I didn’t have the money to do so and that I would need to find a new place and leave as soon as possible. That was two weeks ago. I was freaked.

Added to this, my grandfather had died the night before I was to move in, and my Mom was still in a very fragile state, so I was dealing with all of that and I just felt I couldn’t add to her burdens by telling her what was going on. My daughter was freaked and wanted to chuck it all in and it didn’t take long before I began to seriously consider chucking it all in finding a rock to go hide under.

Of course this is not the first drama in my life and there are never any rocks to be found and this is also the time you find out who your friends are. Thankfully, I am blessed with many friends and they have all helped in one way or another. So the good news is, as of right now, I have a place for my sheep for the winter and I have found a small house to rent that is nearby the sheep so it is easier for me to take care of them. Today’s headcount for critters is 128 sheep, 4 llamas, 2 alpacas, one donkey, one horse, 2 dogs and three cats. At the end of January, lambing starts and the sheep numbers will go up.

Speaking of the sheep, the new sheep settled in nicely and the entire flock is quite impressive. They have been grazing peacefully in lush hayfields and are blissfully unaware of all the goings on, the stress and craziness of this “interesting situation” I have found myself in. Lucky them…

The next few days will find me moving equipment to storage and getting in touch again with my new friends at All-Ways Moving in Pittsfield – maybe they’ll give me a “frequent mover” discount this time around!?

End of blog…..

Thursday November 18, 2010

Heirloom Breeds & Seeds:
Berkshire Grown’s Holiday Farmers’ Market

...should not be missed!!

Vendors at the Great Barrington market include Allium Restaurant + Bar, Asia Luna, Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Berkshire Orchids, Berkshire Organics, Berkshire Wildflower Honey, Cedar Farm, Consider Bardwell Farm, Cricket Creek Farm, Earthborn Garden, Farm Country Soup, Farm Girl Farm, Farm House Bakers, Foggy River Farm, Good Dogs Farm, GooGoo Gourmet, Indian Line Farm, Jaeschke’s Orchard, Justamere Farm, Klara’s Gourmet Cookies, Leahey Farm, Lorna Herbals, Maiden Flower Farm, Markristo Farm, Mayflower Farm, Maynard Farms, Moon in the Pond Farm, North Plain Farm, Ooma Tesoro, Shaker Mountain Canning Company, Taft Farms and Zehr & Sons Mushrooms. Berkshire Grown will also be present.

WHEN: Holiday Farmers’ Markets will take place at the Williams College Field House on Latham Street in Williamstown (10 am – 2 pm) and the Searles School Gymnasium on Bridge Street in Great Barrington (9 am – 1pm.) PLEASE NOTE THE NEW LOCATION FOR THE GREAT BARRINGTON MARKET.

Thursday November 11, 2010

Heirloom Breeds & Seeds:
Meet Farmer Lisa

Lisa Dachinger is a dear friend.  Lisa grew up in NYC and now lives the life of a farmer. She is a first generation farmer who became a farmer because she's passionate about feeding her family the freshest and most nutritious food possible.

Over the past 20 years she has grown vegetables and eggs and has evolved into raising the finest grass-fed lamb, pork and veal.
Lisa will be our Thursday blogger starting next week -  November 18th. She will chronicle her move to a farm in Richmond, MA where she has increased her herd and is taking on new and different challenges.

Welcome Lisa and we all look forward to hearing about your journey - the ups, the downs, the rewards and perils of being a woman farmer.

Thursday November 04, 2010

Heirloom Breeds & Seeds:
Laura Meister Sums Up the Season

Hello  Farm Girl Farmers!

It really is hard to believe this is the season’s closing newsletter.  Each season has its own highlights and its own challenges, but this one was on the whole so much sunnier and yield-I-er than 2009, that I can’t help but feel a little sad to see it ending.  Of course, with each season, I learn more about how to do things better next time, and we have many ideas, intentions and plans for next season already brewing.  But, and this is where you come in, we want your feedback, too.

I will email out and also have copies at the table of our end-of-season questionnaire that is designed to help us understand your experience as a CSA member of FGF.  How did you use your veggies, how many people are you feeding, what did you get sick of (if anything!), what did you long for more of.  If we see a pattern and there is something we can do to change our field plan to accommodate a change, we’ll do it.  For example, 4 and 5 years ago the message was clear: MORE ONIONS, PLEASE! So, we grew more onions.  On our very limited land, more of something inevitably means less of something else, so we want to know if you felt overloaded with something.  This year, for example, we clearly had too much land in watermelons—so we’ll cut back on that crop a bit next year and reallocate that space to grow more of the things we never had enough of (in my opinion beets and carrots).  So please fill out your questionnaires!

If you loved your farmshare and farmers so much this year that you can’t wait to sign up again for next year, then sign up before December 31 and get this year’s share price.  After the January 1, the price will go up incrementally to reflect rising production costs.  The advantage to FGF to have some early bird sign-ups is huge—your early infusion of cash helps us manage our year-round overhead--although we are not producing vegetables in the winter months, many of our expenses continue around the calendar.

We put the farm to bed between now and Thanksgiving or the first week of December.  We’ll have a few things to harvest for the pre-Thanksgiving Holiday Farmers Market on November 20.  After that I enter the headscratching months:  I spend December through February catching up on all paperwork, opening (if not reading) my mail from April thru November, bookkeeping, taxes, etc, which give me a basis to evaluate the season and  write a new business plan for 2011. From there I begin to sign on new CSA members, make a new field plan, revise the seeding calendar and order seeds—that last one is a monumental task that reminds me of writing my masters’ thesis.  

In addition, I am very excited to report that I was accepted into a class called Whole Farm Planning for Women in Agriculture, a 10-class workshop sponsored by Pioneer Valley’s Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).  There will be 15 of us from all over the state, whose businesses are at least a few seasons established but who have less than 10 years experience in farming, meeting on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the winter and spring, to determine, under the guidance of several mentor (established!  successful!) women farmers, next directions for our own operations.  I hope to emerge from this work with more clarity about medium- and long-term goals, and a sense of the priorities—tractor first or new greenhouse?  More land now or later?  

And as if that won’t be enough time in the classroom, Vivian and I together will participate 5-day workshop on soil and plant health called Nutrient Dense Crop Production, held by the Real Food Campaign (our sessions will be held at Hawthorne Valley Farm).
Don’t forget that Berkshire Grown is hosting two Holiday Farmers’ Markets this fall:  Saturdays, November 20 and December 18.  The markets on both dates will be held simultaneously in North and South Berkshire County—the North County market will be at the Williams College Field House from 10 am til 2 pm and the South County market will be at the old Railroad Station, where the summer market is held, from 9 am til 1 pm.  Last year the Thanksgiving market was a huge hit, so many vendors, so many customers—there was a wonderful charge in the air.

And, on November 8th Berkshire Grown and Mezze Bistro in Williamstown will be hosting a reception—Getting to Know Berkshire Grown, Celebrate NoCo-- w/ nine central and north Berkshire County chefs preparing food f.rom 10 area farms to show the abundance of products that north county has to offer.  The event is from 5:30 to 7:30 at Mezze, 777 Cold Spring Road (Rt 7) Williamstown, $25 for Berkshire Grown Members.  See berkshiregrown.org or call the office for more info:  528-0041.

It has been my privilege to grow your vegetables this year.  Best wishes for a happy healthy winter, and hope to see you all at the distribution table next June.

Enjoy the veggies!

--Laura Meister, Farm Girl Farmer

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