Exciting farm changes for 2019!

To think, I thought I’d have a bit more time to be able to update this blog last year, with Emma being a bit older and being back at work 3+ days a week, but that definitely didn’t work out! We all made it through last season, but it was quite difficult, for many different reasons, not the least being the weather. The growing season started with drought and ended with extreme humidity, which means early season greens and peas did poorly, and some crops didn’t get a start at all, and it was super hard to cure late season squashes because there was so much mold everywhere thriving in the moisture. Days were spent examining squashes and wiping them down with vinegar to prevent mold growth, though they were all in single layers with plenty of air flow. One bright spot in the season was the success of the tomatoes and eggplant, which definitely thrived from all the heat units in the earlier part of the summer! Then winter hit hard and early in mid-October and just stayed, preventing some of the end of season field clean up. The second week of October was hot and humid, and the 3rd week had the first snow on the ground. I definitely breathed a sigh of relief when the last vegetable harvest of the season was delivered to everyone so I didn’t have to worry about regular vegetable harvests anymore.

And then we started lambing again November 7! In theory, I knew my ewes, having some Dorper genetics, could lamb 3 times in 2 years, but as it hadn’t happened over the past few years, I wasn’t expecting it. But somehow, when the ewes went out on pasture in June/July, even with the drought, they were in good enough body condition to be bred. In future, we’re going to have to be much more intentional about our timing of leaving the ram in with the ewes. We’re just too soft hearted and don’t want to separate the ram from the rest of the flock to hang out on his own.

This past year was definitely the year of the lambs for Black Sheep Farm! Our first (and expected) round of lambing started in late February and resulted in the birth of 26 lambs by early April. That means we averaged 2 lambs per ewe, with 2 of them having triplets, 2 having singles, and the rest with twins. The majority were rams, so 2018 was the first year that we had enough lamb to actually sell in bundles. And even with the drought, we managed to keep all the sheep well fed on pasture, moving them in and out of the barn as needed, to let the pastures regrow, feeding them hay while in the barn. Managed intensive grazing definitely gets more intensive in drought conditions as the sheep actually had to be moved twice a day to keep them happy enough with their pasture to prevent breakouts. So much moving of moveable electric netting fence pieces…but it must have worked as the ewes all regained body condition after lambing and all those lambs definitely fattened up well. And our pasture fields are one more season into overall soil regeneration. We’ll see this year if the various pastures have gotten denser and lusher with plant matter. Some of the pastures have been under managed grazing for a season or two longer than the others, so it’s pretty easy to see the progression of pasture improvement each year. One of our changes this year will be to bring the 6 acre hay field out of hay production, and use it exclusively for grazing, and see what changes that brings over the next few years.

One crazy sheep incident that we hope never to have to deal with again, was our first brush with flystrike. In late September, in those weirdly humid weather conditions, Brush got flystrike. First, we tried to catch her on pasture to get a better look, but when that didn’t work, we had to bring the whole flock into the barn, but in the process of herding them, she took off! We eventually found her in the woods and had to catch her to bring back to the barn. I won’t go into detail about how things looked, but essentially, it’s the sort of situation that brings me nightmares. Just look up flystrike and you can watch all sorts of videos that you’ll probably wish you hadn’t clicked on. Anyway, we tried to rinse the maggots and eggs away and cut away the affected fleece, but were extremely unsuccessful, especially since we didn’t want to nick Brush’s skin and cause a wound that would make things worse. In the end, we doused her backside with iodine (which started a maggot exodus that I still gag to remember) and called our sheep shearers, who could luckily come to see us the next afternoon. When our shearers, Jake and Sam Sloan came the next day, they sheared away the fleece on Brush’s backside and confirmed that we had both caught the infestation just in time, and the iodine treatment had actually worked 100%, killing all the eggs and maggots. She had a small wound from maggot eating, which healed up very nicely without any further treatment. Phewf! Apparently when our shearers are usually called in to deal with a sheep with flystrike, it’s usually too late and the sheep has had its flesh eaten away enough that it just has to be put down. In Ontario, this isn’t usually something to be worried about in fall, but rather spring/early summer, which is partly why we shear our sheep before they go out on pasture (and with enough time to grow back enough fleece to protect them from the sun). But this is the first fall in the 10 seasons I’ve been at the farm, when I’ve experienced such constantly humid conditions.

My major takeaway from 2018…climate change is going to require constant adjustment, innovation, and attention for us to be able to keep farming. We need to scout regularly for signs of stress in the plants and animals, and ensure that we adjust for weather conditions to make sure everything manages to stay healthy. Vigilance and action. I knew farming would never be boring, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be quite this exciting 🙁 I know there are a lot of farmers who are on the verge of burnout from all the added stress and management from having to respond to uncontrollable weather conditions, or just stand by and see entire crops wiped out as there’s nothing they can do. There are no more expected weather conditions…we’re just going to get whatever comes year by year and hope that our planning is resilient enough to make sure enough food can still be produced to feed ourselves and our members. And while many farmers’ solution to unpredictable weather is to build more greenhouses, I just can’t bring myself to go that route. I’ve never felt right working in a greenhouse and have always preferred the open field. And greenhouses come with their own set of challenges which I’m not willing to deal with in addition to managing field growing and animals.

The major change for vegetable production is that we will be moving away from rotating the 1 acre vegetable field, and switching to fixed place, raised vegetable beds. This is both to cut down on soil tillage and to gain 3+ more acres of pasture for animal pasturing. So when the vegetable field has dried enough for working this spring, we will start to build raised beds for planting, which will eventually (over years) become no till, as they get built up with the addition of organic matter in the form of mulch and compost. Part of the reason we can make this change is because of the compost available from the increase in the number of sheep at the farm, as well as the addition of chicken manure, as we will be raising both meat birds and laying hens this season.

The priority of all these changes…we want to keep improving our soils. This is at the very root of how we will both respond to, and mitigate, climate change. Healthy soils, full of microbial and animal life, and organic matter, are what will keep things growing through all extremes (except for a 40 day flood…but we were promised to never have that again, right?). Managed intensive grazing both improves soil life and sequesters carbon, because you’re encouraging all those plants to remain in a growing state, improving their root systems, and constantly harvesting the energy of the sun through their leaves. Seems like such a simple solution, right? But it’s certainly not what modern science promotes, because it takes time, and encourages the inherent biodiversity of nature to heal and improve itself, instead of human interventions that can be patented and controlled, to make money in the corporate economy to which we human beings seem unwilling to find an alternative. But that’s me being cynical. Cynicism isn’t going to change the world, but healthy soils, full of life that we can’t even imagine, can do it. So that’s what we’re going to continue to do at Black Sheep Farm, do our best to promote the health of the soil, even more than before, cutting back on tilling as much as possible, and increasing animal pasturing so more land can have its soils regenerated. And we’re still planting trees and perennials, so there can be an increase in long-term life. Who knows how much the world can change in the next twelve years if even just this farm, and all the farmers who I know and respect, continue to promote the growth of healthy soils over all else. So please look us up, find us, and support us in any way that you can.

This is the story of my journey into sustainable agriculture. From the streets of downtown Toronto, to the farm land of southern Ontario, I hope to discover the techniques and practices that work for me in both mind and heart.

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