We need to find balance in this ‘new’ agriculture

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sheep and sunset
It's hard to find balance in times like these, but we must. (Photo courtesy of Blue Heron Farms)

Working from my farm house these past weeks, tucked into the rolling Appalachian foothills, I’ve had a spectator’s seat to the tumult that is spring. Driving rains. Gusting winds. Sleet. Snow. Gloomy clouds. Blazing sunshine.

As farmers, we’re used to the roller coaster of springtime weather. No more so than in the past year or so. That saying: March “comes in like a lion and out like a lamb”? This year, it came in like a lion and morphed into a Harry Potter-level giant spider careening through our lives, crashing into things and leaving behind a generally awestruck and detached feeling in its wake.

Hard blow

What do you do when the tried and true ways you rely on to market the animals you raise or the crops you grow seem to vanish overnight?

Many farmers and ranchers are there right now. Restaurant and school wholesale orders evaporated. Although grocery stores continue to operate, the supply network to help stock the shelves is beginning to stutter.

I understand the principle behind deeming an industry “essential.” Essential doesn’t mean protected though, and that’s the rub. This time, the enemy is invisible and not a respecter of labels. Ask the packers who are shutting down or slowing operations in a number of facilities across the country. The dominos keep falling, almost too fast to track.

Stay steady

I’ve been thinking a lot about balance lately. Even before the pandemic. The definition of balance is “an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.” It can also mean “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” It can also mean “keep or put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall.” There are others, but those are a few that stuck out to me.

A friend of mine messaged me the other day. She was doing a small farming course online. It included notable names like Joel Salatin, a Virginia-based farmer and author. She told me he was making her depressed.

“Basically, we are all going to die unless small farming comes back strong,” she wrote.

“Joel Salatin will always say something like that. He is passionate about what he does,” I replied. “It’s more than usual,” she said. “He’s on a roll today.”

“I think all things should be in balance,” I said. “The problem comes when you’re too much one thing and not the other.”

We kept chatting. I pointed out that at one point, we were all small farmers. We had the Dust Bowl and we were not quite hitting the mark on the world stage. Then came industrialization and we figured out how to get strawberries to New York City in January. Now, we’ve got proposed corn and soybean planting predicted to be close to, if not equal to, historic numbers, all while markets remain in flux. (I’m hyper generalizing here.)

Her response, in response to the strawberries: “He says it isn’t worth it because their nutrient density isn’t there anymore.”

Of course, there might be deficiencies, I replied. But where else are people in urban settings going to get important nutrients? Their rooftop gardens? In January?

She laughed. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do things in balance? Instead of swinging one way and then the other?”

Let’s get real

It’s not an easy question or topic to wrap one’s mind around. We run a commercial sheep farm and are very involved in selling on a commodity scale. But we have also seen exponential growth in direct sales for lamb. Add in breeding stock sales, and we’re officially diversifying.

No one seems to know where the saying about lions and lambs came from. Some say astrology. The Farmers’ Almanac attributes it to the beliefs of “people who came before us.”

“Those beliefs often included ideas that there should be a balance in weather and life,” the almanac article reads. “So, if a month came in bad (roaring like a lion), it should go out good and calm (docile, like a lamb).”

There’s that balance again. Even before the worst hit, my mother and I looked at our situation, hard. What if? What if it all goes downhill? How do we cut costs and weather the storm? We had a crop of about 80 winter-born lambs. Some were close to finished market weights, but not all.

Because of the markets we sell to, we can sell un-castrated ram lambs. It works well when the markets are strong. Finish them fast and off they go. But you don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of rams and nowhere to send them. We loaded all of the rams out. The finished ones went to a packer — it turned out to be one of their last weeks in operation, because their orders halted.

The rest went to Mount Hope auction, in Mount Hope, Ohio. They garnered strong prices. While prices haven’t completely stumbled at markets, we still did well. Now, we’re transitioning. Planning more intensive grazing this season. If we need to hold lambs on pasture, we can. Almost all of our spring ram lambs are going to be castrated.

There are other projects I have ramped up, ones that we’d talked about before, but now is as good a time as any to pursue them. We will likely always have a foot in the commodity side of things, but I see no reason not to broaden our scope.

Balance

I will always keep coming back to the idea of balance as I consider our path forward. I do not presume to know the way forward for the hog farmer or the dairy farmer or the grain farmer or the cattleman or woman. I suspect a commercial sheep farm such as ours has a little more flexibility than some folks’ operations. What we can do here may not be feasible elsewhere.

I do know this though. Rarely is balance a bad thing. Farmers are creative people. They are strong and resourceful. Maybe this is an opportunity for you. To look around and see how you can broaden your scope. At the very least, we all need to be willing to have these conversations and plan ahead. To face the “what if?”

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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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