Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How can ewe resist?

1 bottle + 10 lambs = hilarity. And there are over 100 little lambies at Becky's....

During my time at Monkeyflower Ranch, there were 5 or 6 lambs being born each day. Plenty of mouths to feed meant I got lots of hands-on experience. I loved it. Honestly, the little guys were so cute, waggling their fluffy tails as they nursed, that I hardly noticed the mud, poop, milk, and straw that permeated my clothes from being around them 3 or 4 times each day for the past few days. (Until I caught a whiff of myself when I was leaving the farm on Monday morning, that is. I may need to fumigate a few clothing items before putting them in the wash....) They're smaller in stature than the calf brood I bottle-fed back in Foxboro last June, but they're just as voracious (and hilarious).

I'd first heard of Becky's sheep operation from my friends Laura and Barry a few weeks ago. The artisan cheese maker had worked at a goat dairy years before, been trained as a professional chef, worked for awhile at the Bay Area's fabulous Cowgirl Creamery (whose dairy wares at the DC location frequently captured a sizable chunk of my paltry teacher's salary back in the day), all the while wanting to be on a farm... running a dairy seemed like a natural next step. The former Gabriella Cafe chef had decided she wanted to get into making raw aged sheep's milk cheese -- a delicacy not readily available in this country, though popular in Europe. So a few visits with cheese makers in France and Spain were in order -- sounds like my kind of research! -- and then it was time to get started.

Like the folks at Uplands Cheese (where I'd stopped overnight on my way through Dodgeville, WI and met the cows behind the stunning Pleasant Ridge Reserve -- one of my all-time favorite cheeses), Becky believes that the quality of her Garden Variety Cheeses comes down in large part to the quality of the milk, which in turn depends on the quality of life of the animals, which ultimately comes down to the quality of the pasture. Yep, good grass. With access to lots of fresh water and an open-air shelter for when the weather turns nasty, Becky's flock of milkers -- around 50 ewes -- spend most of their time out on pasture. Because of the relatively mild climate in Watsonville (or, technically Royal Oaks, but try and find *that* on google maps), it turns out that the best grass is available during the drizzly winter and spring months, so Becky slated the first lambing season to begin in December. This way the sheep have prime grazing spots during milking season.

As Becky and I crumbled and salted a batch of cheese, then pressed the crumbles into molds, I learned quite a bit more. I came to understand that sheep produce less milk than cows or goats -- 2 quarts for an average ewe per day in comparison to about 4 gallons per cow -- and their milking season is shorter, averaging about 6 months. Thus she is only making cheese for 6 months of the year. Is this enough to support the farm? Becky's been working on some creative solutions to that very question. My favorite is her adopt-a-ewe project. This past summer, she advertised as follows:

"Ever thought about quitting your job, cashing in your savings and following your dream of starting a sheep cheese dairy? Want to live vicariously through someone who has? For $500 you can cover the costs to feed and care for an organically raised dairy sheep during the off-season. In return, you will receive $600 worth of farm products from January to June of 2010."

$500 for fresh lamb (or a wool comforter) plus weekly installments of fresh and aged sheep's milk cheeses for 6 months? Psh. I've probably dropped that much on cheese alone. Sign me up! If only I lived nearby.... (Don't worry, mom and dad, I'm not moving, but wouldn't it be rad to have something like this near DC??)

Becky says she hopes to make cheese 4 or 5 times a week during the half-year period when milk is available -- quite an accomplishment when one considers how much work goes into the process. Milking and equipment cleaning seem to take up much of the active time. And then there's the basic animal care. While relatively low-maintenance, having sheep is still work -- mostly in terms of milking, but they also require periodic hoof-trimming, hay to supplement their diet, and regular checkups. (And much more, I'm sure, that I didn't witness firsthand during the few days I was on the farm. Like setting up the fencing for the rotational grazing. A healthy pasture is key, remember.)

As I've been doing some thinking lately on farming in a way that is sustainable in terms of not only fuel and chemicals but also human energy, I found Becky's setup to be pretty reasonable, with tasks and shifts varied between 5 or 6 paid staff over the course of the week. It's a long day -- the first milking and lamb feeding shifts start around 7am and the last shift ends around 10pm -- but it's manageable. There's still time for fun. After Saturday night's dinner party (and final lamb bottle feeding of the night), a few of us watched "Black Sheep" -- not the Chris Farley comedy, but one of the more ridiculous horror films out there, about genetically-modified vampire sheep who take over a farm in New Zealand. At least I think that's how it ends... I fell asleep about an hour in, just past midnight. (I'd been up since I helped out with the 7am lamb feeding session. And to think I used to be a night owl.)

I hope that more folks start up small dairy operations like this. The cheeses are downright delicious -- what, you thought I'd not tried any? -- and the lambs... I mean, HOW CUTE are the lambs? Sure, they're awkward and kind of clueless and try to nurse on your elbows and each other and the backs of your knees, but how can you keep from smiling around these little guys? I sure couldn't.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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