Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Winter Grass

Busy weekend for us, even if it was a holiday weekend. On Saturday, Julia and I went to the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley for a talk and a booksigning. My plans for childcare fell through at the last moment so I had to bring her along. Luckily, Amy Greeman, Director of Publicity at Storey, brought her 11 year old son to the talk. Amy took Ben and Julia to the children’s book section (which by the way is very nice) while I talked about the projects in my book. Thank goodness Amy was there because Julia was going to steal the show. Thanks Amy so much!

The Farmer had to get up crazy early because he was going to a “Grazing Conference” way up in Vermont. First, barn chores and then a long drive to Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center. It is organized by University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the Vermont Grass Farmers’ Association.

I’m sure most of you are wondering what the heck they talk about at a grazing conference. It’s quite similar to going to a Stitches or TKGA Conference for knitters but it is for farmers and not nearly as expensive to attend. Farmers from throughout the area drive in and take classes on subjects that you probably haven’t thought about. The Keynote Speaker was Greg Judy who flew in from Missouri and spoke on “The Wonderful Grass Machine: Using Livestock to Restore Fallow Land.” This guy travels the continent speaking about his 2,000 head of cattle and how they harvest his and his neighbor's grass! I think listening to him may be similar to a knitter hearing Kaffe Fassett speak.

The Farmer was very excited about all that he learned at the different classes. He has attended this conference for years and brings back interesting tid-bits of knowledge. I quizzed him the other day so I might have something profound to report to you all. He's not much for flowery descriptions (that is my department). His comment was that it was nice to meet like-minded individuals who were trying in their own small way to preseve the bucolic (not his word, mine) farmlands of New England.

As you can imagine, the conference has to be in the winter when fields are not growing and being harvested. He said it is lots of fun to hear what other farmers are doing in their operations which include beef, dairy cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys. He feels part of a small but hopefully growing movement, alternative as it is, to help do his part to keep the landscape of New England open, beautiful, and productive.

Our sheep are primarily grass fed. This means they eat grass in the spring, summer, and fall and hay (or preserved grass) in the winter. (Our larger lambs are just starting to pick at the hay.) Rotational grazing is an efficient way to harvest grass and turn it into a by-product (lamb and wool). But you have to stay right on top of the sheep and the grass so that they don’t over-graze a field. Overgrazing puts stress on the root systems of the plants and they can’t recover. Here are some of the other good side effects of rotational grazing:
•Permanent pastures provide habitat for grassland birds.
•Pastured animals are much healthier than any kept in typical feedlot situations, hence healthier to eat.
•Naturally applied manure reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
•Less fuel needed to harvest the food and thereby reduces the carbon footprint.
•Reduces (or eliminates) the need for feeding of grain grown other places far away.
•Small farms whose fields are often abandoned can remain in agricultural production if grazing animals are used to keep the pastures from reverting to woodlands.
•And probably a knitter’s favorite reason for rotational grazing – a field full of sheep is just so darn beautiful.

I bet not much of this information was on your mind this morning. If you want to learn more about agriculture and food in the United States, I highly recomment Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It's a fascinating look at large and small agriculture and the source of your food.


Agnes said...

This post brought back memories of what I learned in high school human geography. I actually like human geography more than physical geography ... all those about urban development and agricultural land use. :)

Anonymous said...

That's one handsome farmer. i love the smile on both of their faces!
thanks for the lesson, very interesting.

Lynn said...

Rotational grazing is good stuff (says this interested biologist, non-farmer). I'm sorry I missed you at the Odyssey - some time, somewhere...

Mama Urchin said...

You know, I read your blog as a fan of your designs but i am so glad you share about your life as farmers.

Christine Thresh said...

I think Pollan's Omnivore book was his best so far. I have not read his new one yet.
Thank you for keeping me connected to the earth.

Willow said...

I have to admit sheep grazing wasn't on my mind this morning; umbrellas and kindergarten recess were. But now that you mention it, healthy grasslands and happy sheep are wonderful things to think about.

Gammy aka Peggy said...

It is always interesting to find out there is more to what you don't know than you knew. Thanks to you, Julia and the Farmer for doing what you do.

Diane H K in Greenfield! said...

Actually, sheep grazing WAS on my mind this morning. I'd love to talk with The Farmer about all that he learned. I'll call sometime soon...

Vicarjane in Shelburne Falls said...

and I quote: a field full of sheep is just so darn beautiful.

I have sheep in Colrain, and they are now in the barn.... but Oh! to see them out on green summer grass again!! Thanks for your blog, Kristin.

Sarah said...

I love your posts about farming! This was very educational, thanks.