This kicks off the very first post of my Farming In Focus project! My plan is to visit a different farm each month and do a sort of “day-in-the-life” of a farmer through photography. There are a number of reasons I’m doing this project – primarily it’s to shine a light on what real life farming is like. I was recently at a training seminar put on by the Center for Food Integrity, and one nugget they shared that amazed me was that “most consumers are seven generations removed from agriculture.” That explains a lot about why consumers are sometimes confused about how their food is produced. How can we expect consumers to see through ridiculous marketing claims when in truth, they really don’t have any idea if chickens are raised using hormones or not? (If you read my series on egg labels, you already know that answer: all poultry is produced without hormones.) So this project hopes to help, in some small way, bridge that gap.
Another reason I’m doing this project is because while I do have quite a bit of knowledge about the workings of agriculture, I haven’t spent that much time on a farm. In fact, I’ve never farmed a day in my whole life. I visited a number of farms while working for Monsanto, but that consisted of mostly row crops. Here in Oregon, I have the benefit of being surrounded by great agricultural diversity, and this is my plan to get out there and learn more about what goes on in my own state. Hopefully sharing what I learn with you will help us all learn a little more about agriculture.
Lastly, while I like to think of myself as an amazing writer (I’ll pause here for your applause), my degree is actually in photojournalism. Shocker, I know. I love doing documentary photography, and this will give me a chance to do it more.
I decided to focus on sheep for March, primarily because a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was shearing her sheep this month in preparation for lambing season. Unfortunately, my friend lives eight hours away, so I started searching for someone closer! I ended up visiting two different sheep farms, one smallish and one more medium to large sized. Plus, it worked so well with the adage that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!
The first farm I visited was SuDan Farm outside of Canby.
Susie and Dan Wilson raise about 1300 grass-fed lambs per year, which Susie says is on the small end compared to some farms. They also raise about 30 pastured turkeys, 100 pastured chicken, pastured eggs, and produce many wool products which they direct-market. “We’re not organically certified,” Susie said. “When people ask if we are I say no because we want to keep food affordable. If we had to get organically certified we’d make no money and we’d have to double or triple the price. When people ask that, though, they don’t care so much about that as they do animal welfare. If my animal needs a medication to help them, they’re going to get it.”
While Dan grew up in a farming family, Susie is a nurse practitioner by training but has always wanted to be a farmer. She started knitting when she was five and has been spinning since the 80’s. She started her own small-flock shearing business because she figured if she was going to be a sheep farmer she needed to know how to shear. She met Dan and has been farming with him for 15 years. She knows wool well and sells all her own fiber online and at local farmers’ markets.
SuDan Farm had about 40 lambs when I visited this month. They keep about 40-50 each year for their own breeding stock, and the rest are sold either as breeding stock or sold for meat. SuDan Farm supplies wholesale lamb to 30-40 restaurants, including many well-known local restaurants like those at Timberline Lodge and OHSU. They also provide lamb to local food carts, wineries and caterers.
Susie has one lamb that she’s nursing along away from the mother until it’s big enough to re-join the rest on the pasture. Most ewes have single or twin lambs. When triplets are born, Susie takes one of the triplets away because ewes are not well-suited to raise triplets and often will abandon one. This way, all the triplet lambs survive.
The day I visited was pretty much pouring rain. Aside from giving me (and a few other visitors) a tour, Susie was posting fleece on Facebook and sowing seeds in her greenhouse for their own vegetable garden.
Dan told me if it hadn’t been as wet as it was the day I visited he would have been rototilling. As it was, he was repairing a trailer that they use to haul anything from compost to lambs.
At 74, Dan told me he’s working pretty much every day. When they’re not delivering meat to restaurants they’re working the Portland Farmers Market every Saturday year-round at Portland State University and the Milwaukie Farmers Market every Sunday, May through October. The rest of the time, he’s working on the farm. He told me a vacation day is when he doesn’t do anything in the hours between feeding the animals in the morning and feeding them at night.
The next farm I visited was Crescent Lake Farms on Sauvie Island.
The first thing Lynn Trupp does each morning is fire off a shotgun shot to scare off the thousands of geese who are eating the pasture meant for the sheep. I was trying to get a picture of him firing off the gun, but even though I was expecting it, the shot made me jump so much I missed my chance. Instead I looked off to the field and literally saw the horizon lifting up with geese. Lynn said in addition to eating the grass, the geese also eat the first crop of alfalfa. He later showed me his neighbors wheat field that had should have been twice as tall had the geese not eaten it down to the ground a few weeks ago. They’ve tried everything to keep the geese away, but nothing works very well. “Sometimes I scare them off for the day, but sometimes they just move over a bit or come right back.”
Lynn’s wife Mary is the fourth generation on this farm, and Lynn himself grew up a sheep rancher near Eugene. In addition to roughly 750 sheep, they also have a couple hundred cattle, as well as some chickens, emus, rabbits and any number of other projects their daughter, a veterinary technician, keeps for fun. This year they have 300 mother ewes, each giving birth to one to three lambs. The rams are kept elsewhere. After scaring off the geese, Lynn gets to work feeding the animals.
Unlike SuDan Farm, Lynn and his wife don’t direct market any of their lamb, all of it goes to a slaughter house. He said in the past they’ve tried to sell it themselves but he got tired of folks trying to haggle him on the price and trying to slaughter the lambs on his property. All the wool they shear goes to Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland.
Just like Susie, Lynn takes away the triplets from the mother ewes to make sure they all survive. He had about a dozen triplets he was feeding a milk replacement similar to formula. Some of the lambs needed to be bottle fed, while some of them could drink their own milk. As soon as they’re big enough, they’ll join the other lambs in the communal pen.
In addition to it being the end of lambing season, it’s also calving season. Lynn usually leaves all the calves with the cows, but this one needed special help – it’s never been able to stand up. Lynn thinks perhaps it got stepped on during the birthing process and has a broken back. “I’m probably wasting my time,” Lynn said, “but you never know. I’ll make a harness and get her up and moving around. Sometimes these things heal themselves.” If not, the calf will have to be euthanized.
After feeding the triplet lambs milk, he feeds the older lambs spent brewers grain that he gets for free from a local brewery. Well, not exactly for free – he has to pick up the six to seven tons every week, which isn’t a trivial cost in transportation. He considers it well worth it, though, as it makes a great feed product for the lambs.
The heaviest part of lambing season is over – there are only about 45 pregnant ewes left that will mostly produce only a single lamb each because the majority of them are first-time mothers; they were only born a year ago themselves. Lynn feeds them alfalfa that he grows himself. I asked him if the pregnant ewes eat the most, but he told me they don’t eat nearly as much as the nursing mother ewes.
While I was following Lynn around, he discovered a brand-new pair of lambs born less than two hours before I got there; they were still wet. After the lambs are born, Lynn moves them and the mother into what’s called a jug pen to make sure everyone is doing well and nursing. Ideally, they stay in the jug pen for two to three days, but Lynn said when they’re in the thickest part of lambing season, sometimes they only get to stay in the jug pen for a few hours before they’re moved out to make room for a newer set. Lynn has about 40 jug pens that need fresh food and water two or three times per day. The gestation period for a sheep is five months. A ewe’s milk is very high in fat and lambs gain almost a pound a day.
Three hundred mother ewes means at least three hundred, maybe six hundred lambs. Each one of them must be given vaccines, and have their tails docked. The males also must be castrated. Lynn does all the work himself, sometimes with the help of his daughter as seen here. He can do it alone if need be with the aid of a special harness. Starting in April they treat the lambs to get rid of worms every thirty days and run the whole flock through a foot bath to prevent foot rot about every three weeks.
Every day Lynn drives the perimeter of his pasture on an ATV to both deliver food for his guard dogs and to check for lambs that have been killed by coyotes. That white bucket contained more dog food than I have ever seen given to a dog, but as soon as we drove through that fence, a huge white dog came running from about half a mile away. I love dogs, but he did not look friendly. “If he’s friendly, he won’t be good at his job,” Lynn said. Lynn’s dogs spend their life on the pasture guarding the sheep from coyotes, which explains why they need so much food. Lynn’s family owns 230 acres for those dogs to patrol. Thankfully, we didn’t find any dead lambs that day, and Lynn said so far this has been a pretty good year – he’s only lost a few lambs to coyotes. A few years ago, he lost about 70 lambs to coyotes. In our drive around the perimeter, we saw places where the coyotes were digging under the fence and evading Lynn’s traps. I asked Lynn if he was concerned about the recent wolf sighting on Mt. Hood, and he said, “Yes, I’m very concerned. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be here.” After driving out on the pasture, Lynn took me in his truck to check on the cattle that he keeps on rental pasture in the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area owned by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lynn drives out to check on the cattle at least once or twice a day to look for cows that are having trouble calving and also just to have a presence since the area is open to the public. In the past, Lynn said he’s had trouble with people slaughtering his cows, so the more he’s present, the less likely it is that will happen. “If I’m honest with you,” he said, “there’s always something that I should be doing. I don’t always get to it all, but there’s always something that needs to be done.”