Rise of the giant sponge!

It is damp here at White Pine Farm, as the rain of late has been somewhat episodic. A quick check of the records reveals we are only an inch or two above normal level of rainfall to date this year. However, after a few dry spells in May and June, the mid-summer thunderstorms have been rolling in on almost a daily basis with flashes of light and sound, and driving rain. All this moisture is a boon to farmers, but it can be too much of a good thing. A few weeks back I was in a local store and a soybean farmer was showing photos on his phone of his washed-out fields. His neat, well-tended rows of plants were gullied and half-gone, and his rich black soil had washed away into adjacent waterways. Not only is this an expensive and heart-breaking loss for the farmer, it is a loss of our precious soil resource and a threat to our clean streams and lakes. Perhaps there are farming methods that can reduce this loss with row crops (heavy mulch, no till planting?), but I claim no expertise in this. Indeed, I greatly admire the tenacity and ingenuity of farmers that grow these labor-intensive crops under the constant threat of extreme weather. However, I am not that kind of farmer. 

We grow many things here at White Pine Farm, but at the heart of it all I am a meadow farmer. This perennial “crop” consists of a diverse mix of native and introduced grasses and forbs that carpet our farm with green for much of the year. Robust bunch grasses form dense clumps of roots that reach many feet down into the soil profile, and rhizomatous grasses send dense networks of roots out horizontally, expanding their range and stabilizing soil in the process. Perennial meadow flowers fill in the mix with daisies, asters, lupines, lilies, buttercups and others adding bright colors to our summer greens. The net result is a densely and deeply rooted soil profile that is highly resistant to erosion from even the most dramatic rain storm. This dense, porous mass of soil and living roots generally soaks up most any thing a storm will send.  However, at some point this giant sponge becomes saturated and rainfall will start to flow across the meadow. Fortunately, the below ground complexity of roots is matched by a dense, structurally complex stand of vegetation above ground that dramatically slows and reduces the erosive energy of runoff. Conveniently, the more it rains the taller and thicker the meadow cover grows, further slowing surface water flow. This excess surface flow, and the much greater sub-surface flow, eventually leaves our meadows as clean, clear water and joins the downslope springs, streams and lakes in our landscape.

So, we can thank our healthy meadows and other plant communities (wetlands, forests, and more) for the clean water in our glass, but the meadow community offers much more. Whether it be the Amazon rainforest or a western New York meadow, greater structural complexity and biodiversity means more habitat. Ground nesting song birds, snakes, frogs, myriad small mammals and countless insect species find cover, food and water in mature meadow habitats. This is of particular importance now as both scientists and lay people are seeing a precipitous drop in insect numbers across the world. The origins of this disturbing phenomena are complex, but loss of habitat surely plays a role. Are our meadows at White Pine Farm helping slow this loss? I do not know. I do know that on most any mid-summer night I step out into the meadow I am greeted by thousands of fireflies rising up from the tall grass, dancing and flashing amongst the summer flowers. Apparently at least one family of insects (family Lampyridae) thinks our meadows are just great!

There is another species here on White Pine Farm that benefits tremendously from our healthy, meadow habitat. Our hardy flock of Navajo-Churro sheep. Summer meadow is the perfect food for sheep, and they spend the green season grazing, browsing, and growing muscle, fat, bone and wool in preparation for the all-to-soon return of winter. I practice what I like to call a responsive, rotational grazing system. By this I mean I periodically move the flock around to different parts of the pasture through the year (the rotational part), but not on some pre-determined schedule or plan of any sort. I simple assess the condition of different areas on the land and move the flock accordingly (the responsive part). Ideally, I do not move the flock onto a section of meadow until the grasses and forbs have grown thick and tall, flowered, and even gone to seed. When the sheep move onto a section of this mature meadow (their bellies dragging in the grass) they consume with great enthusiasm, running from place to place trying to find the best feed. Of course, it is all around them, but they seem to be having fun. Some individuals (Flora in particular) relish the grass seed heads and will wander about the meadow nipping them off. These seeds provide excellent energy and nutrition to our Flora, but many of the seeds pass through the ruminant digestive system unscathed, ready to grow back in the nutrient rich medium of sheep droppings. In time (days or weeks) the flock will have grazed the meadow down to a still green, uneven, clumpy surface, covered with nutrient rich droppings. However, the dense root mass is completely undisturbed. Time to move the flock on to taller pastures, and for the grazed areas to regrow. The number one factor that determines the rate of this regrowth is rain. Consequently, though some may curse my name to read this, when the dark clouds gather, the thunder rolls across the ridgelines, and the rain starts to fall in sheets, this shepherd says “bring it on”!    

So come see our rich green meadows, and the happy sheep that thrive in them. However, this year you may want to bring a raincoat! You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.

Handsome Paco in the meadow
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Lambs and roses

It is full summer here at White Pine Farm with the pastures and woods exploding in a riot of green. The ancient trees in the hedgerows are full of life, with leaves furled out to catch every photon of summer sun, and if I just had bigger ears I think I could hear the grass growing. This abundance, diversity, and richness of life is a yearly miracle I dream of through many a cold winter day.  However, there are some species in this rich plant community that we could live without. Multifloral rose (Rosa multiflora), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), knapweed (Centaurea spp.), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate), and other unwanted species are all found on our little farm. These species, imported accidentally or intentionally from the Eurasian super-continent, are referred to by land managers as invasive, non-native, and perhaps most pejoratively, noxious weeds. 

In a past life this shepherd was a noxious weed specialist with the Montana State University (MSU) extension service. In this role I traveled the state giving lectures on the control of invasive species. This is not a trivial problem as these species can significantly degrade rangelands and forests by supplanting native species and reducing biodiversity. Noxious weeds were often described as the number one ecological problem facing western rangelands, and the struggle to contain the spread referred to as the “War on Weeds”! This siege mentality led to a never-ending quest for the most powerful weapon to vanquish the invaders. For the most part that weapon was, and continues to be, chemicals. Indeed, the bulk of the university research, and state and federal funding, was devoted to trials of the latest herbicide. This approach was favored in spite of the profound unpredictability of broadcasting these chemicals into our soil, air and water. In addition, herbicides are quite expensive, and a rancher or farmer persuaded to use these methods may well go bankrupt as a result. Fortunately, there is another way. 

In my time with MSU I found, in the midst of the ocean of papers on herbicides and the latest marketing from the chemical companies, a sizable minority of research that focused on sheep! This research, and the resulting peer-reviewed papers, were filled with complex experimental designs and statistical analysis. However, the concept is simple. We have these plants that evolved in the plains and forests of the Eurasian continent. To manage them, use grazing and browsing livestock that evolved in the plains and forests of the Eurasian continent. This simple concept, and the hope it offers to uphold the ecological integrity of our landscapes, is why I introduced sheep to White Pine Farm. Could I manage the troublesome, invasive species on this little farm with sheep, rejecting the heavy-handed approach fostered by the chemical companies?

The answer is an unequivocal yes!  After six years of managed sheep grazing the presence of invasive species on White Pine Farm has been radically reduced. I have never attempted to quantify this, but simple observation of our wooly charges at work makes the effect quite clear. It is hard to describe how satisfying it is to see a lamb wandering about a pasture nipping off the new knapweed flowers in delight. Knapweed spreads by seed. No flowers, no seeds. They will follow up this flower munching by grazing the knapweed rosettes right to the ground. Even more impressive is to watch the flock attack multifloral rose. Often these forays are led by PJ, our robust wether who thinks he is a goat. He will stand up on his hindlegs and crawl in to these thorny bushes knocking them down so he can feed. When the rest of the flock sees the talented PJ in action they come running. They will eat rose leaves, flowers and even thorn covered limbs that would puncture and lacerate my skin. However, the flock shows its greatest enthusiasm for honeysuckle. I believe this may be their favorite meal. They will knock the honeysuckle bushes down, devour the leaves and smaller branches, peel off and eat the bark, and generally show no mercy to their favorite plant. Even the pungent garlic mustard is not spared from the hungry sheep. The flock will not eat mature garlic mustard, literally turning up their noses at it, but the early spring emergence of this biennial seems to taste just fine. Slowly, but clearly, garlic mustard is fading away in areas of our forest once overrun by this species. At least where the sheep have been at work. 

Of note, we are not eradicating any of these Eurasian species on White Pine Farm. This is neither a realistic or desirable goal. Rather through the daily transformation of these “problem” plants in to muscle, bone, and wool, the feared invaders simply become a minor part of a diverse plant community.

So come visit the talented, acrobatic PJ, and meet his cousins Rosa and Flora (named for the multifloral rose they enjoy eating). Be assured you will see no “War on Weeds” here, just a simple management response to the presence of the newer members of our plant communities.  You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.

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Half-Moon

Late spring is lambing season at White Pine Farm, as we try to align the arrival of new farm members with the growth of tall, nutritious grass for hard-working moms. The birth of new lambs is, in many ways, the culmination of all the shepherd’s efforts over the year. Breeding choices, flock health, predator protection, and pasture management all come together in new life on the farm. For all these reasons it is an exciting time, and of course there is nothing more beautiful on this good earth than a new-born baby lamb. At least in this Shepherd’s deeply biased opinion. 

Navajo-Churro sheep are excellent mothers. They generally give birth on pasture and require no assistance from the humans in their lives. However, things can and do go wrong, and as with most animals the first few moments of life can be fraught with peril. This is where the shepherd steps in and tries to help, or at least not make things worse. I could tell a dozen stories of births, both simple and complicated, but the most memorable lambing at White Pine Farm was the first.  Adding to this was the reality that I really did not know what I was doing. Fortunately Brownie, the oldest ewe in our flock at that time, was much more competent than I was. 

Brownie came to us with the small flock that we purchased from our excellent, local, Navajo-Churro breeder Alyssa de Villiers of Golden Grove Farm (https://www.goldengrovefarm.com/).  She (meaning Brownie) came to us with her first lamb in tow who she nursed through the summer. Come late autumn this experienced mom was ready to breed again. We sent her back to Golden Grove Farm for an extended play date with Whitey the ram (not the most creative names I admit). When Brownie returned to us in a month we assumed she was pregnant, but Alyssa did not actually witness the deed. However, come May it was clear that a lamb was on the way. 

Sheep have a 150-day gestation period (give or take a day), and if one actually witnesses the breeding lambing day is somewhat predictable.  However, that first year we witnessed nothing, so our predictions were on a scale of weeks at best. So we waited, and we watched, until one cool day in mid-May the shepherdess in the family observed that Brownie was acting funny. Of note, the shepherdess (also known as my wife Sara) often notices things I do not, in spite of spending much less time with the sheep. Brownie was walking in circles, pawing at the ground, and spending an inordinate amount of time looking at her butt!  I had to agree with the shepherdess that the lamb(s) was on its way. Around dusk, with the temperature dropping rapidly in to the low 30s, we went out to visit and made a poorly-managed attempt to put brownie in the sheep shack for shelter. She had her own ideas and seemed to think a wooded spot in the lower corner of the pasture was the place to be. We were concerned about the low temperatures, but there was nothing we could do. Brownie would give birth on her own terms.  But was that minutes away or many hours? I looked up in the sky and noticed a waxing half-moon, and determined to come back down in few hours and see what was happening by the light of the moon. I set out my warm farm clothes, some clean towels for drying wet, new born lambs, and went to bed.  

I woke in the middle of the night, as I often do in lambing season, got dressed and headed down to Brownie’s patch of woods.  As I approached the forest I could see the flock moving about under the trees in the moonlight, and I could hear a gently nickering sound coming from Brownie. I have since learned that this is a good sound as it means the lamb or lambs are born and mom is cleaning them up and encouraging them to nurse. The eyes of the sheep were flashing in the woods with reflected moonlight, and on the ground I could see two little eyes, much closer together, looking at me in the light of the half-moon.  I approached and there on the forest floor was this perfect little lamb, steam rising of his wet wool in the cold night. I knelt down with my towels and dried the lamb off as I was worried about the cold. As I dried this little creature off, standing him up for better access, I looked around and realized that everything was fine. Cold nights are no threat to lambs as long as it is dry and calm. The little lamb seemed to enjoy my attention and stuck his nose up towards me and started to nuzzle my shirt. As cute as that was, the lamb needs to do that with Mom, so I realized it was time for me to go. When I stepped back from the newly-dried lamb Brownie stepped in with her nickering and encouragement for nursing. I went back to bed, confident that our new little farm member was in good hands.

The next morning as I shared the night’s events with Sara it was clear to us how we should name this new farm member. We walked down with our morning coffees and took a look at our new lamb Half-Moon in the light of day. Brownie was a good protective mother and generally kept Half-Moon away from the humans, but as the weeks went on it was clear Half-Moon had different ideas.  He thought humans were just great and craved pets and attention. He is still that way, and he has been my friend now for many years. Half-Moon is a wether (castrated male) and is a magnificent animal with exceptionally fine wool, impressive head gear, and a continued friendly and calm disposition. I sometimes wonder if those first few moments of his life when I dried him off under the light of the half-moon created a persistent bond between us.      

So come visit Half-Moon at White Pine Farm and all his flock mates, most who were born right here. You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.

Late spring is lambing season at White Pine Farm, as we try to align the arrival of new farm members with the growth of tall, nutritious grass for hard-working moms. The birth of new lambs is, in many ways, the culmination of all the shepherd’s efforts over the year. Breeding choices, flock health, predator protection, and pasture management all come together in new life on the farm. For all these reasons it is an exciting time, and of course there is nothing more beautiful on this good earth than a new-born baby lamb. At least in this Shepherd’s deeply biased opinion. 

Navajo-Churro sheep are excellent mothers. They generally give birth on pasture and require no assistance from the humans in their lives. However, things can and do go wrong, and as with most animals the first few moments of life can be fraught with peril. This is where the shepherd steps in and tries to help, or at least not make things worse. I could tell a dozen stories of births, both simple and complicated, but the most memorable lambing at White Pine Farm was the first.  Adding to this was the reality that I really did not know what I was doing. Fortunately Brownie, the oldest ewe in our flock at that time, was much more competent than I was. 

Brownie came to us with the small flock that we purchased from our excellent, local, Navajo-Churro breeder Alyssa de Villiers of Golden Grove Farm (https://www.goldengrovefarm.com/).  She (meaning Brownie) came to us with her first lamb in tow who she nursed through the summer. Come late autumn this experienced mom was ready to breed again. We sent her back to Golden Grove Farm for an extended play date with Whitey the ram (not the most creative names I admit). When Brownie returned to us in a month we assumed she was pregnant, but Alyssa did not actually witness the deed. However, come May it was clear that a lamb was on the way. 

Sheep have a 150-day gestation period (give or take a day), and if one actually witnesses the breeding lambing day is somewhat predictable.  However, that first year we witnessed nothing, so our predictions were on a scale of weeks at best. So we waited, and we watched, until one cool day in mid-May the shepherdess in the family observed that Brownie was acting funny. Of note, the shepherdess (also known as my wife Sara) often notices things I do not, in spite of spending much less time with the sheep. Brownie was walking in circles, pawing at the ground, and spending an inordinate amount of time looking at her butt!  I had to agree with the shepherdess that the lamb(s) was on its way. Around dusk, with the temperature dropping rapidly in to the low 30s, we went out to visit and made a poorly-managed attempt to put brownie in the sheep shack for shelter. She had her own ideas and seemed to think a wooded spot in the lower corner of the pasture was the place to be. We were concerned about the low temperatures, but there was nothing we could do. Brownie would give birth on her own terms.  But was that minutes away or many hours? I looked up in the sky and noticed a waxing half-moon, and determined to come back down in few hours and see what was happening by the light of the moon. I set out my warm farm clothes, some clean towels for drying wet, new born lambs, and went to bed.  

I woke in the middle of the night, as I often do in lambing season, got dressed and headed down to Brownie’s patch of woods.  As I approached the forest I could see the flock moving about under the trees in the moonlight, and I could hear a gently nickering sound coming from Brownie. I have since learned that this is a good sound as it means the lamb or lambs are born and mom is cleaning them up and encouraging them to nurse. The eyes of the sheep were flashing in the woods with reflected moonlight, and on the ground I could see two little eyes, much closer together, looking at me in the light of the half-moon.  I approached and there on the forest floor was this perfect little lamb, steam rising of his wet wool in the cold night. I knelt down with my towels and dried the lamb off as I was worried about the cold. As I dried this little creature off, standing him up for better access, I looked around and realized that everything was fine. Cold nights are no threat to lambs as long as it is dry and calm. The little lamb seemed to enjoy my attention and stuck his nose up towards me and started to nuzzle my shirt. As cute as that was, the lamb needs to do that with Mom, so I realized it was time for me to go. When I stepped back from the newly-dried lamb Brownie stepped in with her nickering and encouragement for nursing. I went back to bed, confident that our new little farm member was in good hands.

The next morning as I shared the night’s events with Sara it was clear to us how we should name this new farm member. We walked down with our morning coffees and took a look at our new lamb Half-Moon in the light of day. Brownie was a good protective mother and generally kept Half-Moon away from the humans, but as the weeks went on it was clear Half-Moon had different ideas.  He thought humans were just great and craved pets and attention. He is still that way, and he has been my friend now for many years. Half-Moon is a wether (castrated male) and is a magnificent animal with exceptionally fine wool, impressive head gear, and a continued friendly and calm disposition. I sometimes wonder if those first few moments of his life when I dried him off under the light of the half-moon created a persistent bond between us.      

So come visit Half-Moon at White Pine Farm and all his flock mates, most who were born right here. You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.

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Season of the naked sheep

Green has returned to White Pine Farm. The ranks of hardwood trees are only starting to bud out, but with the return of spring warmth the pastures are exploding in new growth. The sheep, of course, are thrilled after a long winter of dry hay! The return of green also heralds the two biggest events of a shepherd’s year: lambing (more on that later) and shearing day. Our wooly charges no longer need their coats to ward off the wind and cold, and all that wool becomes a warm and heavy burden. Ancestors of domesticated sheep, likely the wild mouflon, shed their wool annually at the end of winter. However, shedding was bred out of most breeds of sheep thousands of years ago to allow a more controlled, and lucrative, harvest of the fiber. 

Indeed historically, for better or worse, fortunes were made and empires were built with profits from the wool trade. Queen Isabella of Spain financed exploration of the new world with wool, and Columbus and the conquistadors brought this trade to the new world with the Churra sheep.  These hardy sheep wove their way into the lives of the indigenous people of the southwest, and became the Navajo Churro that runs about on the pastures of White Pine Farm. Alas, with the advent of artificial fibers, wool is no longer a path to riches. However, well cared for sheep that are properly shorn still yield a valuable product that at least pays for some of their winter hay. The well cared for part is the shepherd’s job, but the properly shorn part is dependent on the craft and skill of the shearer. 

I am often asked if I shear our sheep myself. I entertained the idea of learning to shear when we first acquired our flock, but quickly concluded that shearing is not a job for the amateur. Consider the task at hand to safely and quickly shear a muscular, 100-plus pound creature that has no incentive whatsoever to cooperate with the process. Consider as well the tools of the shearing trade. For many centuries sheep were sheared with stoutly-made hand shears, but most shearers now use powerful and sharp electric clippers. These clippers, in the hands of the unskilled or unfocused, can cause serious injury to both sheep and shearer. In addition, the manner of shearing profoundly affects the quality of the fleece, and its potential to eventually comprise a quality garment. Hence, a well-trained, experienced, and conscientious shearer is vital to the process of wool harvesting. 

Fortunately, in the Finger Lakes, there are a number of skilled and experienced shearers available. This is not the case in all regions. Perhaps this reflects the legacy of the vibrant wool industry that once existed here. Historical accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries describe tens of thousands of wool sheep blanketing the hillsides of the Finger Lakes. These accounts also describe the annual sheep washing in advance of shearing. Often this was done by driving the flocks beneath our local waterfalls. I can only imagine the controlled chaos this must have entailed. We usually skip the waterfall bath here at White Pine Farm, so our shearing day starts by calmly containing our small flock and awaiting the arrival of our shearer.

Aaron Loux, our sheep shearer ( AARON’S SHEARING – Home (aaronshearing.com) ), is a professional. He has sheared sheep all over the world including New Zealand, Australia, and Wales. In a typical year he may shear more than 14,000 sheep and visit up to 500 farms. Aaron uses the Australian method of shearing, which does not involve any sort of restraints or coercive force on the sheep. When I bring a sheep to his shearing station, he quickly and efficiently flips her on her rear, and then shifts the sheep into a half dozen or so standard positions that allow him to quickly and safely harvest the fleece. If a squirrely sheep starts to struggle, he gently and subtly shifts the animal’s position and somehow stops the wiggling. The shearing is accomplished through a series of smooth and continuous cuts that yield long fibers suitable for yarn production. The fleece falls away from the animal largely in one continuous piece that, when laid out for inspection, reflects the unique look of each sheep. Throughout this five-minute process, the sheep is generally quite passive and endures the process with a mildly confused look on its face. When all the sheep are sheared, we release them back into the pasture where they chatter away to each other as if to say “hey, you look funny” and “hey, so do you.” They generally seem delighted to be rid of that heavy wool coat and bounce about like lambs (especially the lambs). 

At the end of the day, we have a loft full of beautiful wool fleeces, some of which we sell as-is to hand spinners, and much of which we have processed into durable yarn in a variety of un-dyed colors. Our now somewhat naked sheep graze the green summer pastures, and use this plant-captured sunshine to grow more wool for the coming winter and for next spring’s shearing.

So come visit our pastures at White Pine Farm and see our currently not-so-wooly sheep (before and after photos of Rosa below). If the sun is shining and the grass is tall, you will likely see some serious sheep silliness as they enjoy the season of warmth and growth. You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.

Rosa before shearing
Rosa after shearing
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Sugar from the forest

It is mud season here at White Pine Farm, with nights dipping into the twenties and even the teens, followed by a daily thaw of frozen earth and the mud this brings. Yet this messy, seasonally ambiguous time of year is one my favorites. It is maple syrup season. Indeed, in late winter if you journey to our little farm at the top of Snyder Hill, you are likely to catch the sweet scent of maple sap boiling down to rich, dark maple syrup. It takes some time for this transition to occur as maple sap is mostly water, requiring reduction of the sap at a 40 to 1 ratio. However, there is no need to wait to enjoy the bounty of the sugar bush. Dip a clean cup into freshly collected maple sap and take a big drink. You will taste crystal clean, pure and cold water with just a hint of sweetness and rich maple flavor. I have often thought I should bottle this sap and sell it, but perhaps not. Maybe this can just be the special treat of the maple syrup maker. 

So how does this sweet liquid get to my cup? It started as rain or snow melt in the forest that percolated through the soil to the roots of our maple trees. Tiny hairs on giant roots pull this water from the soil and pump it through the vascular system of the tree into the thousands of leaves spread out in the the spring and summer sun. Photosynthesis, the driving force of life on earth, uses that water to produce sugars. Sugars to grow wood and bark and more leaves, and to send seeds out into the world to bring us more maple trees. Come fall, with the return of cold weather, the trees pump this enriched water back down into the roots to wait under the soil for spring. In late February the days start to rise above freezing, but the nights bring the return of frost. Somehow this pattern tells the trees that spring, while not here yet, is on the way. They start to pump sap up into the branches in preparation for spring leaf-out. This is when the maple syrup maker comes in. 

People fortunate enough to live in the hardwood forest biome of what is now the northeast US and eastern Canada have been collecting maple sap for thousands of years. In our region the Haudenosaunee (people of the longhouse) confederacy likely discovered this source of energy and flavor from tasting the liquid draining off the tips of broken branches in the spring. From there they devised methods to collect and concentrate the sap into syrup and sugar. Reports from early missionaries and colonists describe indigenous people chopping a descending slash in the bark of maples and collecting the sap in bark containers. The sap was then boiled down by placing hot rocks in the containers. Colonists likely copied these methods, but at some point introduced the simple technology of the metal spile with a hanging wood or metal bucket. This is the method most of us are familiar with, and the way sap has been collected for hundreds of years. In more recent decades we have seen the advent of miles of blue plastic tubing woven through the maple forests, all designed to flow downhill to large, plastic storage containers. While this method is certainly much more efficient than buckets on trees, it is not how we do it at White Pine Farm.   

This year I tapped the maple trees in mid-March as the hard winter cold just did not want to give up. The method is simple. I use a cordless drill with a 5/16 bit to drill a 2-inch deep hole in the maple trees. This small hole easily heals once maple syrup season is over. I then place, and gently tap in, a metal spile in the hole and hang a galvanized steel bucket from the built-in hook.  The buckets, 19th-century technology, even have cleverly designed lids that slide in place and keep rain, dirt, and other debris out of the sap. On a 40-degree day the sap will immediately start dripping in the bucket with a gentle pinging. Once, twice, or often three times a day I will journey down to the forest with two large, 5-gallon buckets to collect and carry the sap up to my evaporator. Of note, it is indeed an uphill carry as our sugar maples (Acer saccharum) are downhill from my shop. I then boil the sap down using electricity, but this power is largely supplied by our photovoltaic panels. Hence our maple syrup labels say, “Harvested the old way with buckets on trees. Boiled down with the sun.” 

So come visit our sugar bush at White Pine Farm. If you find me harvesting, I may even give you a sip of cold, clear maple sap fresh from the tree. You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale.

The sugar bush
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Of llamas and lambs

The winter cold continues here at White Pine Farm, but longer days and the warming sun tracking higher in the sky hint at spring in our future.  These winter nights can be ideal for star gazing with Orion the Hunter, the Pleiades, and Taurus the Bull arcing across the heavens. Most any night I step out to view the stars, I will hear the voices of our resident coyotes, calling out their inscrutable thoughts to the beauty of the night.

Coyotes are a constant presence here now, though at one point they were entirely wiped out in the Northeast due to systematic hunting, trapping, and poisoning.  Consequently, the wild canids I hear howling from our hilltop are not direct descendants of the pre-colonial residents of the Northeast.  Coyotes from the west (Canis latrans), resourceful beings that they are, expanded their range into the depopulated Midwest and eastern North America.  Along the way, during this centuries’ long journey, they spent some very intimate time with grey wolves in the wildest parts of our continent. 

This has been revealed by genetic testing of resident coyotes.  A review of genetic studies shows that, on average, the northeastern coyote is roughly 60% coyote, 30% wolf, and 10% domestic dog https://canids.org/CBC/19/Northeastern_coyote_taxonomy.pdf).  Indeed, our neighborhood coyotes are sufficiently genetically and morphologically distinct from their western cousins that many taxonomists now classify them as a distinct species with the moniker Canis oriens (eastern wild dog),or in the common tongue the coywolf.  These bigger, more pack-oriented, wild canids in our midst help check deer overpopulation and add a richness and complexity to the wild places of the Northeast.  Their presence does call for some awareness with small pets and very small children, but on the whole these wild neighbors are no threat to us.  Unless, of course, you raise sheep!

As some readers may know, we raise heritage breed, Navajo-Churro sheep at White Pine Farm. These are tough, intelligent sheep, but they are no match for the coywolf.  Visitors often ask if we have trouble with coyotes.  The short answer is not anymore.  However, during the summer of 2017, we had a sudden upswing in sheep predation on our hilltop.  A neighboring farm up the hill lost a number of lambs, and a neighbor down the road lost an adult ram!  On our farm, our friendly lamb Joseph was attacked and required numerous stiches to repair a badly lacerated back leg (he was and is ultimately fine).  Protection of the flock is the ancient, even sacred, duty of the shepherd. Accordingly, I spent a few nights out watching over the flock, but this was not a long-term solution.  With that, I would like to tell you about Diego the llama!

I found Diego at an alpaca farm to the north where the owners had aged out of the work.  Llamas are natural guard animals and have been used for centuries to protect sheep.  They are bigger than sheep, much taller in stature, and have an instinctive hatred for all things canid. Unlike the sheep, they will confront a canid intruder with a loud alarm call and stomping.  The wise coyote will quickly look elsewhere for dinner, or risk serious injury or even death.  Coyote, 40 pounds; llama, 200 plus.  This is not good arithmetic for Wily E.  However, not all llamas make good guard animals.  Diego, though, was a champ, and despite a few glitches developed into a fierce guardian of the flock.  I could tell a hundred stories about this amazing interspecies relationship, but this time I will just tell you about Diego and Chaco the lamb.

Chaco is Cinnamon’s (not so) little boy.  He was the first lamb born that spring before the coyote attacks.  The day I integrated Diego with the flock, Chaco came walking up and introduced himself with a nose inclined towards Diego’s face.  Chaco seemed to have no fear of this seven-foot tall, two-hundred-plus-pound creature.  Diego, however, turned and scooted away.  An odd power dynamic considering Chaco weighed no more than forty pounds with eyes at the level of my thighs.  Chaco was not dissuaded, though, and tried it again several times that day with Diego growing more comfortable with this much smaller, white creature.  A week or so later, we looked out in the pasture and saw Diego lying down with Chaco standing right next to him, looking his hero Diego in the face from a few feet away.  At the very least, Diego had decided to tolerate his little worshipper, but I soon realized there was much more than tolerance occurring.

Some days later, I was sitting on the back patio as the day’s light faded and saw Cinnamon walk out into the pasture to graze with her two boys, Chaco and Paco.  This time of fading light is the golden hour for many predators. Diego got up and followed and simply stood next to them, watching the tree line–looking, looking, looking.  At one point, Chaco put his face up towards Diego, just like on the first day, and Diego stretched his long neck down and briefly touched noses with his admirer.

As a biologist, I know it is bad practice to interpret or apply human emotions to the animals we observe.  However, it is hard to imagine the gesture of touching noses as anything but affection, bonding, and family.  Diego was Chaco’s hero, and this shepherd’s hero as well.  Sadly, llamas are susceptible to a number of internal parasites that do not affect sheep.  In spite of our best preventive practices, advised and assisted by the excellent Cornell vet service, we lost Diego a few years ago.  This was a hard loss and we have not been up for bringing another llama to the farm.  So this shepherd continues to guard the flock with well-designed and maintained fencing, and awareness of the presence of our wild, coywolf neighbors.

You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just two miles up from the village of Brooktondale. Come meet our farm family!

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Hey! (or rather hay)

It is mid-winter here at White Pine Farm, and it has been gray! I often take exception with those who claim the sun never shines in Ithaca, as we have many glorious sunny days throughout the year. However, occasionally in winter we get a string of cloud-covered days that can try the soul. Our sheep, by contrast, do not seem to be affected by such seasonal blues. They thrive in winter as summer’s scourge of harassing insects is over, and their wooly coats and vigorous, ruminant metabolism keeps them warm on even the coldest night. All they need is clean water, shelter from the wind, and a regular ration of hay from their devoted shepherd.

My daily winter chore of hay delivery is a source of great entertainment to me. It doesn’t matter if they have finished yesterday’s hay or not. They are always so excited to see me and that bale of hay coming! The whole flock will come running from wherever they are, sometimes literally leaping in the air with excitement. Of course, they also act that way when I bring them mineral salts, or even walk by them carrying an armload of the day’s mail. Cinnamon, our prize ewe, seems convinced that someday there will be a letter for her. While this ever hopeful attitude towards the postal service is silly, the enthusiasm for hay is well deserved. As with most animals that spend the winter in northern climes, it is not the cold that threatens their survival. It is starvation. Sheep, white tail deer, and the chickadee at your bird feeder need abundant food to support the ramped-up metabolism required to endure our northern winters. In the case of wildlife, I often wonder what they are finding to eat, but for our sheep it is hay.

Hay is simply dried summer meadow, cut and dried in the summer sun when the grasses and legumes are packed with nutrition. However, there is really nothing simple about it. A successful hay crop depends first on good soil, abundant spring rains, and ample sunshine. With these ingredients, by June our local hayfields will yield an explosion of green with a diverse mix of grasses and legumes swaying in the early summer breeze. The beauty of the hayfield is an ancient one, stretching back thousands of years to the earliest days of the relationship of humans and domestic livestock. Hayfields can be, depending on management, significant repositories of biodiversity with dozens of species that have evolved to thrive in these human-managed plant communities. I dream of the day when we will visit the hayfields of Transylvania. Far from being a place of blood-sucking aristocrats, these are ancient landscapes where humans have raised and harvested hay for their stock for millennia. Much of this hay is still harvested the old way, with scythes and rakes, and stored in traditional haystacks.

I have tried these methods (scythe and rake) for a very small harvest of hay on our land. To say the least, I am deeply impressed by the skill and perseverance of those Transylvanian farmers. The vast majority of our winter hay comes from our wonderful hay farmers down the road. As the crow flies (or the sheep jogs), they are only 3 to 4 miles away. Obviously, they are not out in their fields in June with scythes and rakes, but even mechanized hay production is a daunting task. Come June, the hay must be cut before it starts to flower as this provides the best nutrition. This timing most then coincide with enough dry days to allow the hay to dry in the sun, be raked into windrows to dry some more, and then bailed and stored out of the reach of rain. By the time my sheep see me carrying a bale of hay to them, it may have been worked by our hay farmer a dozen times. This work is done with expensive and hazardous equipment that requires a great deal of maintenance and no small quantity of diesel. Accordingly, and appropriately, hay is by far our largest operating expense at White Pine Farm. However, the cost of hay per day for 16 adult sheep is less than we would spend for two fancy coffee drinks at a local coffee shop. A small price to pay for healthy, happy sheep.

So the winter continues, with gray and cold days, and days of brilliant sunshine glancing off the snow-covered fields and forests. Through the season our resourceful, wooly charges thrive and grow, and greet me like a returning hero every time I bring their daily meal of dried, summer meadow. And surely, someday, Cinnamon will get a letter in the stack of daily mail.

You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just up from the village of Brooktondale. Come meet our farm family!

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The Ram Report!

Early winter is breeding season here at White Pine Farm. We try to time breeding so the lambs are born in the late spring when the pasture is exploding with green growth, providing vital nourishment for late gestation and nursing for newborn lambs. All sheep have an approximately 5-month gestation period, so this means to have spring lambs we breed in December. This, of course, requires a ram. We do not own a ram at this point, though we have many charming and friendly wethers (castrated males). However, the wethers’ attempts at breeding (yes, they give it shot!) will not result in lambs added to the flock. So, somehow or another our willing ewes need to spend some time with an eager, intact ram.

Sheep have a three-week estrus cycle culminating in approximately 3 days when they are receptive to breeding. This means the ewes need to have an extended “play date” with a ram for a minimum of four weeks. In addition, Navajo-Churro sheep show a moderate seasonality to their breeding and tend to start going into regular estrus cycles in early fall. When a ram is introduced to ewes, he tends to be ever hopeful and is almost constantly checking the gals to see if they are ready. In other words, he makes a nuisance of himself. The ewes have no patience for this for most of the three-week cycle and send him on his way, but when the magic three-day estrus arrives, the ram suddenly turns into a hunky hero in their eyes. The actual breeding is rather quick, almost bordering on “if you blink, you will miss it.” However, it is obvious what is going on as the ram and ewe are inseparable with frequent nose rubbing, gentle head bonks, and, of course, other activities I will leave to the imagination. All this is predicated on finding a way for ram and ewes to meet. As we do not own a ram (and likely never will), this requires some planning and, at times, creativity.

The best approach is to bring a visiting ram to our farm. However, some years we have chosen to breed only one ewe and it makes more sense to bring our ewe to the ram’s farm. One year we did this by loading Cinnamon (our prize ewe) into the back of our Subaru Forester and driving her twenty miles to the home of Frosty the ram. But most years the ram comes here.

Navajo-Churro rams are impressive animals, routinely growing four large horns and sometimes up to six. There is much discussion about handling rams, especially with such headgear. Conventional wisdom is to take great caution around them. Never turn your back on them, and do not raise them with any human affection or attempts at friendship. This is good advice, but as with most generalizations, it is not true for all rams. Our biggest breeding year we introduced Shemp to our flock (pictured with Spot below). Shemp’s owner followed none of the conventional wisdom. He described Shemp as his best buddy, and sure enough he was friendly, loved pets and chin scratches, and never threatened us in any way for the four weeks he was here. Most significantly, his visit resulted in a successful, rewarding, and somewhat terrifying lambing season (a subject for another column). When he left our farm, he left me with the impression that rams do not deserve their daunting reputation. That was our breeding season with Shemp the sweetie. However, a few years later we hosted Frosty the Jerk, who provided a rebuttal (pun intended) to this relaxed view of rams!

Frosty arrived at our farm in December as is typical and his owner admonished me to never turn my back on him. I smiled and acquiesced, but was not concerned given our positive experience with Shemp. Later that day, I went into the paddock with Frosty and the two ladies he was there to see, and said hello. Frosty came up and I gave him pet under the chin, and then I wandered off to check on their hay supply. Suddenly, WHAM!!! I was on my back in the snow and smarting from Frosty butting me hard on the side of my leg. After assessing for broken bones, I immediately hopped up, grabbed Frosty by the horns, flipped him on his back, and proceeded to sit on him and forcefully lecture him on who the boss was here! He was not impressed! For the remainder of his visit, whenever I went in the paddock I had to march right up to Frosty, grab him by the horns, and shut him up so I could do my chores. He most certainly did not think I was the boss, and never did. Needless to say, I was glad to see him go, but he gave us beautiful lambs, all of whom are gentle and friendly.

This is yet another example of how much I have learned from our delightful wooly charges. All are individuals, with unique personalities, and relationships with each other and their humans. You can contact all of us at ronlecain@gmail.com, and at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Snyder Hill just up from the village of Brooktondale

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True local fiber

Never in the history of humankind has functional, and fashionable, clothing been so in-expensively and easily available to so many, at least in the industrialized parts of the world.  While this is of great benefit to many this convenience comes with a cost far beyond the individual’s monetary investment.   Consider the path a polar fleece jacket takes to my closet.  Most clothing today is made from synthetic fiber, which of course comes from oil.  So my jacket started life in an oil field (Pennsylvania fracking fields…off shore oil derricks?).  This oil then ended up eventually (in some form) in a large factory, almost certainly on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.  There the fiber was synthesized, the garment produced, loaded on to a massive container ship, and transported thousands of miles to a retail outlet, and finally my closet.    All of this comes to me through a tremendous expenditure of fossil fuels. 

Prior to the industrial revolution clothing was generally produced with materials sourced from area farms.  In the northeast this was usually wool which was either hand or mill spun and crafted in to durable, weather resistant garments for our cold, wet winters.  Clothing required much more of an investment so people would buy far fewer, durable garments that would have a long life, or craft them on their own with wool, and flax, from their own farms.   In the Finger Lakes wool production was a significant part of the local economy.  Indeed when exploring the cascading streams of our area one frequently encounters ruins of old mills, many of which likely processed raw wool from the thousands of sheep that once inhabited our hills and valleys. 

Consider the alternate path of the growing wardrobe of wool garments in my closet (indeed we are trying to phase out clothing made from oil).   These garments start with a lamb, born in the spring on our pastures.  A summer of grazing, running, and enjoying lamby life allows her to grow a thick, wooly coat that protects our four legged charge through her first cold winter.  Come spring our shearer arrives, who quickly and kindly shears this wool and sends her back to the pasture where she runs about in delight at being 5-10 pounds lighter.  Her wool is then cleaned, sorted and sent to the nearest mill for processing in to yarn.  Unfortunately, small scale wool mills are a rarity in these days of clothing made from oil, but we found a good one (Batenkill Mills) near the Vermont border.  This is a bit over a hundred miles away, but it sure isn’t China!  The yarn then returns to the farm where we offer it for sale, or is hand knitted into warm and durable garments for us!  Our sheep also attract the interest of hand spinners who buy our raw fleeces. 

This is White Pine Farm’s small way of contributing to the “Slow Fashion” movement.  This movement fosters local, sustainable production of clothing from natural (no oil) fibers.  Many large companies are starting to embrace these ideas, and clothing shoppers are responding favorably.  Come visit us to see how our small farm participates in this movement.  We can be contacted by email at ronlecain@gmail.com, at our Etsy site https://www.etsy.com/shop/ChurroWool, or find us at the top of Landon road just up from the village of Brooktondale, and about 1/8 mile east of the meeting of Landon and Snyder Hill Road.  Come meet our farm family!

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Introduction post

I (meaning Ron the shepherd) have started writing a monthly column about White Pine Farm for the little local newsletter here in Brooktondale called “The Old Mill”. I will be putting these comments onto this blog so our friends, family, and followers can see them. Below is the introductory column.

You can find White Pine Farm two miles up from the village of Brooktondale on 14 acres of meadow and woods at the top of Snyder Hill Road.  We raise chickens, tap maple syrup, and grow fruits and vegetable for our table. However, the center of our farm is our small flock of heritage breed, Navajo-Churro sheep. This hardy breed of sheep was adapted by the indigenous peoples of the southwest United States and Mexico from the Churra sheep brought over by the Spanish. At one point the breed bordered on extinction due to several waves of government imposed flock reduction. However, at this time the breed is rare but thriving throughout North America, and on White Pine Farm. Navajo-Churro are known for prospering in difficult climates on marginal forage, and producing beautiful, low grease wool that is ideal for hand spinners and knitters.

Our flock helps us manage our land with minimal input of fossil fuel, provides us with raw fleeces for the hand spinner market, and many natural shades of yarn ready for the home knitter to craft warm, durable garments.  Complementing these practical benefits, our wooly charges enrich our lives, our pasture, and our gardens.  In coming issues of the Old Mill we would like to share the adventures of raising sheep, and discuss the environmental and cultural benefits of sustainable grazing and fiber production.  Come see us and meet our farm family.  

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