Thursday December 02, 2010
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…..