Hunter’s Moon

It is late fall here at White Pine Farm, yet the continued warmth and rain have kept the coldest season at bay for just a few more weeks. The pastures are still a vibrant green, quite unlike the golden sheen of senescence typical of autumn’s end. Yet the cycle of the seasons continues with the leaves falling and the sky opening up to reveal our winter vistas. Indeed, if ever unseasonable warmth (or cold) confuses my internal calendar I only need to look up at the night sky to reset my seasonal clock. Looking to the east in late fall I see the Pleiades, the seven sisters of Greek lore, rising above the tree line. I know that in a few more weeks Orion the Hunter will dominate the winter sky. This week (week of October 20th) the arrival of this celestial warrior was preceded by the Hunter’s Moon. 

The Hunter’s Moon is the first full moon following the autumn equinox.  Preceding this in September was the aptly named Harvest Moon, which has illuminated long, late days of the bountiful season for as long as humans have had a harvest. Similarly, the Hunter’s Moon likely illuminated nighttime forays in quest of wild game. Of course, such nocturnal activities are illegal now in many places in the world. However, our ancestors likely had no qualms about using this bright, autumn moon in search of meat to sustain family and tribe.

The cycles of the moon, and the wheel of the night sky, tie us to our ancestors in a beautiful and tangible way. For millennia humans have looked to the stars to guide the timing of planting, to navigate their way across miles of land and sea, and to spark a profound sense of wonder at the unknown. Of course, viewing the night sky in the humid Northeast is not always ideal. One cannot see stars through a layer of clouds, and even clear nights in summer are often quite humid with the airborne moisture obscuring the heavens. In the heart of winter, when humidity is down, we still often have snow covered fields and forests that reflect and refract any ambient light, again obscuring the sharp details of the night sky. However, occasionally, when a dry breeze blows from the interior northwest, when the cycle of the moon has moved its light away from us, and when the fields and forests are free of snow, we are treated to a magnificent celestial show. When I step out into our dark pastures on such a night I am greeted by many thousands of stars, and a small sampling of bright, wandering planets. The arc of the milky way, while often somewhat dim, spans the sky, and I marvel at the millions of worlds that make up this stellar cloud.

Of course, these celestial wonders are not unique to White Pine Farm. The Finger Lakes region is still quite rural, so star gazing awaits all who step out into darkened fields. However, this opportunity is becoming increasingly rare. Since the advent of electric lights, a technology that has brought tremendous benefits to humanity, the night sky in urban areas has been largely lost behind an electric haze. This effect can be seen hundreds of miles from these urban areas, often manifested as a pronounced glow, or glows, on the horizon. Astronomers and other scholars have been studying this trend, and its concerning implications, for quite some time now. Recently a group of scientists released “The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness”.  This publication states “that more than 80% of the world and more than 99% of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies. The Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans. Moreover, 23% of the world’s land surfaces between 75°N and 60°S, 88% of Europe, and almost half of the United States experience light-polluted nights.” (https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.1600377).

There are many concerns associated with this loss of the night including affects on human health and impacts on wildlife. Fortunately, there are some very smart folks studying this issue, and developing approaches to mitigate the loss of our stars to modern convenience. One of the bright stars in this constellation of scholars is Professor Sara Pritchard of Cornell University who has spent the last several years traveling the globe researching this issue, and its history, in preparation for her upcoming book. Of course, my deeply biased opinion of this scholar is due in part to her role on the farm as Chief Shepherdess, and as my wife Sara. Visitors to the Brooktondale farmer’s market may know her as the lovely woman who sells yarn from our sheep, garden produce, and potted herbs at the White Pine Farm table. Ask her about light pollution. You will find a well of wisdom.

So, there is great reason for hope that the loss of the night can be reversed with smart folks like this on our side. Though we all may need to make some lifestyle, regulatory, and technology changes return some semblance to the dark skies of old. For now, however, I encourage all to revel in the beauty of our mostly-dark night skies, and to recognize how unique this has become in our modern world. As always you can contact 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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The Harvest

Summer is winding down here at White Pine Farm, though the continued warmth and brilliant sunshine belie this annual reality. However, the signs are obvious with shortening days and a lowering sun stretching shadows out in the woods and meadows. Here on the farm the sheep show their delight at autumn’s arrival, with cool nights and fewer harassing insects, by bouncing about the pasture like lambs. An impressive display for a 200-pound wether (castrated ram)! The garden is a bit of a jungle, but as is typical of early fall it is full of ripening food ready for picking, eating, and preserving. Indeed, for all these reasons, and the spectacular show our hardwood trees put on each year, autumn is this shepherd’s favorite time of year. Many likely share my enthusiasm for this special season, with its beauty and the abundance of the harvest. However, for the livestock farmer autumn often means something more. It is also the killing season. 

This reality of the most beautiful season is an ancient one. For millennia farmers in northern lands have grown their stock (cows, sheep, pigs, reindeer, yaks, chickens, etc.) on abundant summer pastures and “harvested” some before winter to feed and clothe their families and communities. In the coldest, and especially the driest, parts of our earth humans could not survive without the annual culling and butchering of their herd animals. Predating all this by thousands of years is the hunting of wild game to feed the tribe. However, the ancient heritage and necessity of killing stock does not make it any easier. At least not for this shepherd. It is by far my least favorite task on the farm, yet it is one I must do well. Larger farms usually outsource this task to professional butchers, and indeed if a farmer wants to sell packaged meat the animals must be butchered at a USDA-approved facility. Meat from our farm is only for our personal consumption. Therefore, if an animal ends up on our menu it was born, lived, died, and was butchered (by me) right here on the farm. Also atypical, in most cases we only take an animal when age, injury, or illness has diminished his/her quality of life. Some may wonder if the quality of the meat degrades with older animals. It does not. It simply influences how I cook it. Of course, this approach does not follow the seasons in the traditional way However, there is one task that always aligns with the arrival of autumn: the culling of young roosters.

As some may know, we add new chickens to our flock through the hard work and dedication of mother hens. They hatch our fertile eggs, and protect and teach the chicks until they are about 8 weeks old. This is a great and very natural way of bring new laying hens into the flock, but obviously on average half of these chicks end up being roosters. This is certainly not apparent when the new chicks are fuzzy little balls of energy. Nor is it usually apparent at 8 weeks when the mother hen sends her charges of on their own. But somewhere around 4 months of age (September) the roosters start to make their presence known. Physical features include larger body size, longer legs, long tail and neck feathers, and sometimes the start of spurs on their legs. Yet the behavioral changes are equally telling as the young birds start to realize they are roosters, and to compete for dominance. The clashes start small with puffed up neck feathers and a bit of chest thumping, but our young roosters’ aggressiveness grows along with their body size. Feathers, and eventually even blood, start to fly. In addition, there is already a rooster in the flock: their dad!  Far from being a paternal guardian, Gustave (our rooster) picks the largest and most aggressive of the crop of new roosters and shows them who is in charge. The young roosters rarely dispute this, and come September I often see them staying as far away from Gustave as they possibly can. Fortunately, our chicken yard is very big, but these power struggles cannot be sustained. Through the fall I watch and wait, and when Gustave’s patience for a particular young rooster is exhausted it is time for him to go. 

So, euphemisms aside, it is time to kill a young rooster. I will not discuss how I do this except to say if I must kill an animal, I must do it well. I am happy to share my methods with anyone who wishes, but will not write about that here. Once the rooster is dispatched the rest is quite simple. I heat a big pot of water to about 145 degrees. I then take the newly-departed rooster and plunge it into the pot of water and swirl it around for ten seconds or so to thoroughly douse the feathers. When I take the bird out the feathers pull off easily, quickly leaving a naked chicken. Once gutted and rinsed out, I take the chicken in to the kitchen. I next put potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, and whatever other herbs or vegetables that are coming out of the fall garden into a big covered pot and place the chicken on top of it all. I put this pot, with a tight-fitting lid, in a 300-degree oven for slow braising, and head back outside to other projects. When I come back inside, after 3-4 hours, I am greeted by an aroma of goodness that makes all the trouble, and angst, more than worth it. Dinner does not get any more local than this. 

All this is part of our ongoing quest to feed ourselves from the good land we are so lucky to live on. Our animals are part of this effort, and they become a part of us. 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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Dinosaurs on the loose!

It is late summer here at White Pine Farm, and after a brief dry spell we are inundated with moisture coming all the way from the Gulf of Mexico. It is quite common for the Finger Lakes to receive serious rainfall from tropical storms, but this last storm seemed extraordinary. My crude rain gauge showed us getting over 5 inches of rain in a 48-hour period. With this moisture and warmth our towering, green woods start to feel like a tropical rainforest, teeming with exotic wildlife. In reality there is nothing terribly exotic in our woods, but we do have dinosaurs! Indeed, the cardinals at our bird feeder, the pileated woodpeckers on our snags, and all other birds are likely descendants of the Theropod branch of dinosaurs. Artistic renderings of Theropod dinosaurs (hollow boned, three-toed, bipeds) bring to mind common, barnyard chickens. Dozens of these descendants of Archeopteryx wander about our farm, providing eggs, meat, tick control, and entertainment.

Humans have been raising chickens for thousands of years. It is likely they were first domesticated from the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a species native to tropical areas of southern Asia. From there, humans have brought this useful bird around the globe. Chickens have adapted and been bred to thrive in even the coldest lands, far from their ancestral home. The millennium-long commonality of chickens is even seen in our language. We have all felt “cooped up” from time to time, or taken someone “under our wing.” Perhaps you have even “flew the coop,” especially if you were feeling “hen-pecked.” Spending even a little time watching chickens will quickly reveal the origins of many popular phrases and cliches. What will also be revealed is the significant lack of altruism amongst chickens. True to their dinosaur brains, chickens are all about fight or flight, and show little interest in sharing or the well-being of their fellow flock mates.

There are few notable exceptions to this “me-first” attitude, including the behavior of the flock rooster. A good rooster, along with being a stunningly beautiful animal, is a true guardian of the flock. Roosters are constantly on the lookout for trouble, ready to warn the flock of danger, or even do battle if the threat is something they can manage. One recent spring morning while working in my office (perhaps writing a column for the Old Mill) I heard Gustave (our rooster) raising a ruckus with sounds I had never heard before. I looked out the window and saw a fox in the chicken yard that had somehow gotten through the fence. This was a bit too much predator for Gustave to directly challenge, but he was not running away. He was standing his ground and calling out a warning to his hens (and to me?). I am sure his bravery saved a lot of hens, and it certainly alerted me to the problem so I could come running! Of course, Gustave does ask for something in return for his stewardship, and that is to mate with every single one of his hens as often as he can muster the energy. This basic biological imperative leads to perhaps the finest, and most pleasing exception to the “me-first” attitude of normal chicken life, and another familiar cliché: The mother hen. 

Hens lay eggs of course, and these eggs are why most of us raise chickens. However, chickens do not lay eggs to feed humans. A hen in the prime of life will lay one egg every day or two, and usually abandon the egg in the nest box and go back to running around the chicken yard. However, some chickens, during the warmth and long days of spring and summer, will “go broody.”  Once you have seen this behavior a few times it is obvious what is happening. The hen is hunkered down in the nest box, covering the day’s eggs from the flock, and will not leave. She seems to be brooding on something, meaning she is ready to hatch a clutch of eggs.  If the onset of this broody behavior aligns with our goals for the flock we will move mother and eggs to a safe, secure, and separate broody coop, and the genesis of new life begins. 

Caroline and Ella are our oldest chickens (8 years old!), and the finest mothers in the flock. Caroline is such a dedicated mother we have been know to refer to her as Saint Caroline. Once the broody cycle starts Caroline will sit on the eggs, keeping them covered and at an ideal temperature for gestation, for three weeks. She will only get up once or twice a day for a few minutes to poop, eat, and drink a little bit, and quickly return to her clutch. When the magic 21st day approaches something starts to happen. Caroline will look newly alert, and it is clear something is wiggling and moving under her. And then you see it! A little face will pop up from under Caroline’s feathers, then dodge back under mom. The newborn chicks will spend the first day or so hatching and staying warm and dry under mom. As soon as Caroline deems them ready, she will take her new family out in to the run to feed and drink and start learning the ropes of how to be a chicken. If I throw the little family some tasty greens Caroline will call the chicks over and cut the leaves up into little chick-size bites for her fuzzy charges. She will spend the next 8 weeks caring for them, protecting them, and integrating them in to the greater flock. At that point she loses interests and the chicks are on their own, but they have been taught the fine points of chicken life by an expert. They are ready for life on our little farm.

So, this is how we grow our flock of dinosaurs on White Pine Farm. Saint Caroline, and other beatific mother hens, do most the work and are glad to do so. We are privileged to know them, and all our other special animals on the farm. 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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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.

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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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