By Liz Brownlee, Nightfall Farm
“Maybe just bring some donuts for us to share?”
That was, roughly, Nate’s response to an email recently.
A woman graduating from our alma mater is managing an urban farm next year, and she’d heard we were farming nearby. She emailed to ask if she could visit our farm to see what we do, and run her plans past us. She was looking for feedback and a sounding board for the coming farming season. We set up a time for her visit. She emailed with just one more question. It was a savvy one: what payment would we need for meeting with her?
Farmers’ time is valuable, and it was gratifying to see someone acknowledge that. But in this case, donuts were the only fair price we could imagine.
People have helped us at every turn of our farming career, and it feels incredible to be in this position: we’re starting to be able to pay their gifts forward.
We recently celebrated our five-year farm-i-versary… but our early days working on farms feel like yesterday.
In 2011, we needed to find and purchase about 25 bred ewes. We had been working on farms for a few years, but we had never purchased sheep before. Our mentor, Pete, offered to take us to a friend’s farm. The friend, Lee, raised over 300 ewes on pasture, and sold lambs for meat. We knew this was a rare opportunity: to buy good stock directly from the farmer, so we eagerly agreed.
We drove up with Pete on a cold, grey day. Lee met us at the barn, and showed us what to look for when buying sheep: hoof health, the state of the teeth, body conformation, and parasite load. It’s not often that a farmer tells you how to buy his best stock, but Lee taught us and then let us try our new knowledge.
After we loaded the sheep, we headed into Lee’s warm kitchen. He and Pete sat down in rocking chairs, and Pete said, “Okay, now’s your chance: Fire away with questions.” I have no idea how long we talked (hours?), but we asked every question we could think of about grazing, breeding, and sheep health.
This gift of time and knowledge was invaluable. I can read farming books for days and days. I can learn from reading, but nothing compares to seeing a farmer’s operation and then asking questions.
When I read a book about sheep, I have to attempt to gauge the author’s philosophy: are they committed to rotational grazing? How do they manage parasites? Are they raising sheep to make their living, or as a hobby? Depending on these answers, their approach might be more or less helpful to me.
At Lee’s, I remember him explaining his approach to “lamb watch” (where a farmer goes out and checks her ewes every 4 hours during lambing season, to see if anyone is in labor and needs help). The farm where we worked was a firm proponent of lamb watch, and we had someone checking on the lambs every four hours, around the clock.
Lee explained that he bred and selected his culls for good mothering skills. By and large, they didn’t need him to be involved in the birthing process.
I had never heard of such an approach, but I could see with my own eyes that it worked well for his farm.
Seven years later, I’m still benefitting from that afternoon on Lee’s farm.
We’ve been raising feeder lambs, but last year we bought bred ewes. We knew what to look for and what to avoid. This past Spring, we had our first lambs born on-farm. Needless to say, we did not check on the ewes in the middle of the night to check their progress. We had sought out good mothers, and we had faith in them. This Fall, we bred these ewes for the first time.
And this month, we’ll welcome another young farmer to sit and visit at Nightfall Farm. We’ll invite her to fire away with questions. We’ll eat donuts. We’ll learn from each other. And hopefully the conversation will be useful for her.
P.S. We’re also thrilled to be helping with several workshops at the upcoming Indiana Small Farm Conference. We’re teaming up with Indiana Farmers Union on a session about advocacy; with the Hoosier Young Farmers Coalition for a session about farmland access; and with a host of other farmers and eaters for a session on equity in the food system. We’re also helping lead a tour of butcher shops and a conversation about processing infrastructure in the state. We feel honored to be part of the exchange of knowledge among small farmers, and we hope to see you at the Small Farm Conference!
This blog is part of a series hosted by Indiana Farmers Union. We post a blogs written by Hoosier farmers at all stages—from just beginning to long-established. If you’re an Indiana Farmers Union member and are interested in writing for us, please contact Sherri Dugger at firstname.lastname@example.org.