Praying for rain and farming, pandemic style

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sheep and sunset
Courtesy of Blue Heron Farms.

Sandy dust coats everything on the farm right now. After almost two weeks without rain, the fescue is crunchy and the legumes are not far behind. That’s the reality of strip mined earth, with little to no topsoil. Storms are predicted. Hopefully, we’ll get a soaker or two.

This is the time of year when we close off the upper fields to let them grow up for hay. Technically, we let the sheep take off the first cutting and then we follow. This year, we had fewer sheep grazing in the back, so less was taken off early. But without the rain, we’re still waiting to take off that cutting.

In the meantime, we partition off the lower fields. One hillside was fenced off in April. Another 5-acre pasture has been stockpiled since last year. In recent weeks, it’s been a constant flow. Put up temporary net fencing. Take it down. Move it here. And then there.

We’re also managing our replacement ewes’ grazing, since their pasture is a little burned off right now. Up goes more temporary fence. It’s an excuse to graze off areas around the barnyards and along the driveway that we don’t feel like mowing. Next up is an overgrown area next to my house. My living, breathing lawn mowers are scheduled to go there next.

Spring lambs

And the spring lambs are doing their thing. We want to send out at least a trailer load for the Eid al-Adha this month. That means one half of the lamb crop — our wethers and anything else slated for market — are finishing out on grain. To cut feed costs a bit, we’re keeping the ewe lambs on pasture, with access to grain. It also means we need to manage parasites more, by moving their grazing areas and worming as needed.

Our direct sales have increased over recent months. But we’re nowhere near being able to cut the cord with commodity sales, because any larger scale direct-focused ventures that might have been dangling have dried up, thanks to the unpredictable food service industry fluctuations.

So, I’m watching our ewe lamb crop and weeding out the under performers. The rest are either earmarked as our replacements or as potential breeding stock to sell.

Twists and turns

As Rachel wrote in our July 2 issue — in her introduction to The Cost of Food series and in her comparison of two beef outfits — most farming is an amalgam of management practices and a mix of marketing. It’s a never-ending math equation. We add and subtract based on either experiences that have been honed over time or new twists we’ve added, in this case, as a result of the pandemic.

Anytime I think it would be nice to be completely pasture based, we get a drought. Or I start tallying the hours I spend moving net fence or worming sheep. Anytime I think about going all in on a full housing model for what we do, I realize how much I enjoy seeing our sheep be sheep, traversing the hills of our farm.

There is a higher calling anytime you work with the land. But it’s tempered by practicality too.

Adaptability

It’s a fine balance we have here in the United States. We have the ability to do much with little. It’s our calling card. Take something, tweak it and make it bigger or more efficient. We call it better. Sometimes, it is. Sometimes, it isn’t.

But, supposedly, we’re also adaptable. Hardy. Strong. Resilient. Over the coming weeks, as we examine issues surrounding our food, I hope we stumble across answers. Nuggets that get all of us thinking. Most of us never have to deal with the lack of food. We’ve become accustomed to strawberries in January, even in the Northeast. Those are amazing things, but perhaps we need to examine our expectations and acknowledge that sustainability isn’t just a buzzword. Even if it’s always been part of what we do as farmers, maybe it’s time to admit it’s more important than ever.

Meanwhile, I’m praying for rain and preparing to move more fencing. Such is the life of a farmer, in the middle of a pandemic.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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