Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Another Winter Harvest

Tuesday was auction day. We take the lambs that are the proper weight to the nearby livestock auction where buyers are waiting to purchase lambs for Easter dinner. The livestock auction happens every Tuesday all year round. Lambs, sheep, goats, cows, calves, hay, rabbits, pigs, and a variety of animal skins are sold. Anyone can attend and buy or sell. Because of the recent new regulations (called NAIS) it’s a bit harder to sell. Every animal must be tagged with government registered eartags which will help trace an animal back to a specific farm. This is a rather contentious issue with farmers and you can learn more about it here.

Auction day is harvest day for us, to put it bluntly. It’s when we find out how much the animals we have been growing are worth in a monetary form. We don’t talk about it much – it just happens and we hope for the best return we can get. For me, I don’t expend much energy. I just move the gate to let The Farmer in and out with lambs. He gets the workout. Today, I brought the two dogs down to the barn to help round up the flock. The dogs haven’t seen the sheep since December when we moved them from pasture back to their barn. (You can read about that here.) As we approached the barn, both Nessie and Phoebe began to tremble. They knew what they were going to have to do and they couldn’t wait.

The two dogs flew out of the truck. A few quick short commands and the sheep were moving into the barn. In a couple minutes, all the sheep were contained and the harvest was to begin.

The Farmer is quite adept at catching sheep. He looks through the flock, sizes them up, calculates a weight in his head and literally dives. It is like a dance of sorts – if an odd dance. Lamb by lamb, he loads the trailer. I add my two cents every few minutes. “That’s a girl.” “Looks too small.” “Are you sure you want to get rid of that one.” The trailer was loaded and he took them to the auction yard.

Today we took two trailer loads of lambs – about sixty lambs in all. (Don't worry all you sheep and lamb fans - there are still at least another sixty lambs left for me to photograph.) Julia and I met up with The Farmer to watch the bidding. We like to watch our lambs being sold and see how much money we are going to get for them. We like to see if the buyers are appreciating the care we put into the animals. It’s all a bit hard to tell – the only way is to see if you get top dollar. It’s an odd world.

The first time I went to this auction was as a buyer. I think I was 22 years old – Oh boy, that was a bit ago. I was a kid from the suburbs enamored with all things farming. The Farmer and I went in search of a lamb to grow out for my parent’s freezer. We arrived and sat down on the very seats we sat on today. The auction hall has the feeling of a basketball court. High steep seats going up one side with all the action happening down below.

Back then, the characters weren’t very different than those that were there today. There were buyers for slaugherhouses. There were ethnic buyers purchasing for specific holidays (like Greek Easter, Ramadan). There were retired farmers wishing they were still farming. There were all kinds of farm people shooting the breeze. I love this place. The odor is unmistakable – billy goat mixed with cow and sheep manure, bad coffee and chili – all wafting out at you like a blowtorch as you open the door and enter. It’s a total way of life that I fear may disappear. I feel priviledged to have experienced it.

Back then in 1981, I was there to buy a lamb for my parents that The Farmer would grow out for their freezer. Being a girl from the burbs, this experience was like nothing I had ever seen before. I was astounded by the odor. I was intrigued by the people I was seeing – people unlike any I had ever seen growing up in New Jersey. We watched for a while and I got the routine. A lamb would enter a small holding area and be weighed. The auctioneer announced the weight and the lamb was let into the viewing area. Bidding would start immediately.

The Farmer and I watched for a while and then I finally got up my courage. A nice looking lamb entered the viewing area and the auctioneer started his spiel. “Beautiful lamb, looks good… Do I hear……” I entered the bidding, the girl from the burbs. The auctioneer looked at me, accepted the bid and asked for another bid. Noone came back at him. I had stopped everyone in their tracks. That’s it. Sold to the girl sitting in the third row. And I might say for extremely cheap. (Those ethnic guys back in the 80’s couldn’t find it in their heart of hearts to bid against a cute, young girl.)

I had bought a lamb at a livestock auction. The Farmer and I watched for a little longer and then we went to retrieve my mother’s lamb. We assumed it would be a ram lamb. I mean, who would sell a perfectly good ewe lamb when it could produce babies.

I had a little green 1979 Honda Civic hatchback then (it was the early 80’s – the USA was in a different oil crisis). We went out back to retrieve the lamb. It was a good looking lamb and lo and behold – he was a she.

We drove her back to the farm to join the rest of the flock in the back of my Honda. We called my mom and told her she had bought a lamb. Then we told her he was a she. For a while, we talked about growing out the lamb we named Clover for her freezer. Slowly, that reality disappeared. Clover became one of our little flock of sheep. She grew and grew and we became attached. She had a certain bossiness and liveliness that none of our other five sheep had. I could see it happening….. there was no way this sheep was going in my mom’s freezer.

And so Clover grew and flourished for many years. She, Clover, that crazy cross-bred, auction purchased ewe lamb lived to a ripe old age of 13. She produced many sets of twin lambs and even lambed out of season (this means a ewe will become pregnant twice in a year instead of only once). We’ve still got her progeny producing lambs for us.

It’s not quite the same now with 150 sheep as it was back then with a handful. Raising sheep is still interesting and fulfilling and a way of life. But I do miss those days of knowing the personality of each and every ewe and ram. The larger flock number does make it easier to get through auction day without tears. I feel like I am in participating in an age-old tradition of livestock trade that began who knows when. There are different channels now for distribution but it’s still quite the same.

The Farmer ran into a friend at the grocery store tonight. He’s known this man for over 30 years. He told him about selling the lambs at the auction and they shot the breeze for awhile - discussed the prices… the weather…. This guy is a local lawyer who raises bees, and makes beer and wine as a hobby. They have similar environmental interests. Charlie said something to The Farmer that really made his day. He said, “Yeah, Mark, you got that much for the lambs. But what you are really doing is keeping the land open and healthy. And that’s important.”

And that kind of made The Farmer’s day.


Heather L. said...

I just love reading your blog and hearing about life with the sheep. I read David Kennard's books (A Year in the Life of a Shepherd, and THe DOgs of Windcutter Down) last year and really, really enjoyed them. I was actually kind of sad to finish them. Now, I can look at your blog and feel like I still have something "to read." Thanks so much!

Leslie said...

It's people like you and The Farmer who make life in Franklin County and the rest of the "good part of Massachusetts" continue to be worthwhile. We don't need any more big box stores; we don't need any more McMansions; we do need people continuing to keep the land open and healthy and being respectful of life. Thank you.

Jessica Marie said...

I have to echo Heather L - I love reading your blog, and this post was one of my favorites. Yours is a world I know nothing about, though I wish that were not the case. Every year I watch the Pennsylvania Farm Show on TV and wish I could be like you and The Farmer and so many (yet so few!) others, keeping the land free and living close to nature. Thank you for writing this!

PG said...

What an great post, really interesting, and good to see how it happens 'over there'. I used to go to livestock auctions with my mum, (not to buy, just to look) and I have never forgotten the smells. We need our farmers, everywhere. :)

Stacie.Make.Do. said...

Posts like this are why I read your blog.

Simmy said...

I felt I was there sitting in the auction place or livestock market with you - you described it so well.

Sorry I haven't been in touch for a while but as you can imagine been a bit busy with the move. We're pretty settled now (two weeks on) but I still haven't unpacked my craft stuff yet.

Lora said...

I love reading your accounts of rural life and farming. My parents were dairy farmers who ultimately went is not an easy life. My 6-year-old son is currently being raised in the city but I make sure to take him to a cousin's dairy farm every time I'm home for a visit so he has an appreciation of where at least some of his food comes from. We also planted a tiny garden this year (I'm in CA...yay for year-round growing) so he knows that food doesn't just come shrink-wrapped in plastic from the grocery store.

Laura said...

Ok, I admit it. I am a city girl who reads your blog regularly, sometimes in awe, and sometimes fascinated. And sometimes, like today, a little bit of morbid fascination too.

Thank you so much for your posting about farm life. It really gives me something to think about. I am not a vegetarian by any means, but generally try not to think about the source of protein on my plate.

But you are so respectful of the process that I cannot help but be open to you. I eagerly await more posts.

Emily said...

Thank you for doing what you do! Through rain and snow, sick animals and healthy ones, farmers just keep on, and I appreciate it. I live a semi-rural life with animals, but they're riding horses. Our family is striving to be more connected to our food, and it's working, and meeting people like you and the Farmer who grow our food is so important. Thank you.

KnitNana said...

Terrific post. I so enjoy your blog and all the stories of farm life...still, for all that I admire what you are doing out there with the lambs? Give my deepest regards to the beekeeper you mention at the end. My dad kept bees till the city told him he had to stop.
And now, with colony collapse syndrome, my heart is with the beekeepers everyday.

I'm praying this way of life continues - at a satisfying level for all the farmers/beekeepers.

Kate G. said...

Beautiful post, Kirstin. I felt like I was there bidding. Here's to a good Spring for you and Julia and The Farmer...oh, and the dogs! You've all certainly worked for it.

Willow said...

Great post. I love your view of life and how you live it.

The last photo looks like a painting. Perfect.

Anonymous said...

My father was a commercial fishing captain - skipper of a fishing vessel as he called himself. He hated being called "captain" too fancy. He didn't consider what he did "special" or "romantic", it was just who he was and what he did.

Jennifer said...

Just wanted to drop by and tell you that my knitting buddy Kathy just made your fair isle sweater from Kristin Knits and it's gorgeous. She hasn't even finished the embellishments (which will make it out of this world) and we all were ga-ga over it. Thanks for all your brilliant designs. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

it makes my day too. thank you.

Anonymous said...

Your post brought back so many memories for me. My grandfather was a cattle buyer for a meatpacking company. He used to take us grandkids with him to the local livestock auctions. The smells, sounds, sights, the little luncheonette where he always had coffeee and we always had Mountain Dew are so vivid in my memories. And there is such a specific energy with the mix of animals and people and excitement. Thanks for the post.

BlissHill said...

We have our first five lambs we bred for our freezer and it's getting close to 'that' time. There's such a fine line between enjoying caring for them and looking into their eyes and getting attached.

One cute little gal is staying. It goes to show good looks do matter.

Thank you for your lovely blog. I love getting in and catching up.

jennifer.auroradesign said...

I'm feeling like a bit of a dork right now, with tears running down my face. My sister is an organic, grass fed dairy farmer in rural New York State. I think you summed up so beautifully what she and her husband are all about. He is a fourth, and possibly, last-generation farmer. The two of them converted the farm to organic several years ago and struggle daily to keep their dreams alive--their dreams of safe, nutritious food and preserved open land. All I can say is Huzzah to you and the farmer!

And...I love the photo of the farmer carrying the lamb--it is priceless.

Felicia said...

That bee keeping lawyer is absolutely right :)