Monday, August 31, 2009

Southdown Sheep

The Southdown was developed in southeastern England in Sussex. The region has a mild climate, fertile soil, and good grass that make it excellent for raising sheep.

The Southdown originated from the native sheep of the region, which were improved beginning in the late 1700s and continuing through the 1830s. Southdown sheep were known as hardy and quick growing, and the quality of their meat was celebrated. The sheep are white with mouse colored faces. They have wool on their faces, ears, and legs. Both ewes and rams do not have any horns.

Our Southdown sheep come by way of Gary Fisher at Camelot Downs in Whidbey Island. Dr. Fisher is one of the foremost experts on colonial breeds. Colonial breeds are those that were present in Colonial times around the time of the U.S. Revolutionary War. Although there is not agreement when the first Southdown sheep came to America, it looks as if it was in the 1600’s.

We decided on Southdown sheep for a couple of reason. First, Southdown’s are primarily a meat sheep and grow more quickly and bigger than the Navajo-Churro. There wool is not as plentiful as the Navajo-Churro, but it is much softer and can be used for clothing, where the Navajo-Churro are used primarily for rugs. The second reason is for our children’s 4-H projects. Showing sheep in 4-H is much easier if you have a meat breed and Southdown’s are the rarest sheep that will do well in competition.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Navajo-Churro Sheep

The Churro sheep were brought from Spain in 1540 and became the first domestic sheep in America. By the 1800’s the Navajo-Churro sheep had become extremely popular in the Southwestern United States, especially amongst the Hispanic and Native American populations. The sheep were valued for both their meat the fleece, which soon became an important part of the textile production.

The United States government destroyed almost all of the Navajo-Churro sheep in the 1860s in at attempt to control the Native American Indians. By the 1930s there were very few purebred Navajo-Churros remaining. A professor from Utah State University began a program on 1977 to restore the Navajo-Churro sheep to the prominence. Over the last thirty years, the breed has grown from just a small flock to a few thousand sheep and although still considered threatened according to the American Livestock Breeding Conservancy, they are making gains in populations.

In the 1860s, the Navajo-Churro sheep population was nearly destroyed as part of the United States government’s efforts to subjugate the Navajo people. Churro stock was further diluted by continuing efforts to "improve" Native American flocks through introduction of other breeds. The government’s attempts to control rangeland erosion led to further slaughter of -Native American flocks. By the mid-1930s, very few "purebred" Navajo-Churros remained, and they were scattered across the Southwest.

Both ewes and rams may be polled or have two or four horns. Mature rams average 160–200 pounds and mature ewes about 100–120 pounds. The breed is noted for prolificacy. Lambs are easily born and vigorous, and the ewes are excellent mothers. The weaning rate is high, especially given the environment. Navajo-Churros have a double-coated fleece that weighs four to six pounds. The fine, soft inner coat provides insulation, and the long, coarse outer coat protects the inner coat from dust and dirt while repelling rain and snow. The fleece is low in grease, which makes it easy to process. Navajo-Churro sheep are found in several colors, including white, silver, blue, brown, red, black, and spotted. Patterns such as badger face are common. This range of hues is valued by wool crafters and sheep breeders alike. The wool of the Navajo-Churro is primarily considered a carpet wool and it is often used for rug weaving. Navajo-Churro sheep are part of the Ark of Taste sponsored by Slow Foods, USA, which is another reason that we wanted this breed.

Our flock was purchased from a farm in Montana who had purchased them from a breeder in the tri-cities. We started with 5 ewes, 3 rams and 2 whethers and since had 1 of our ewes die, which we replaced with a ewe from a farm in Monroe. We also have used to the sheep for our own food supply. This year we had 6 lambs and we will be selling those for meat later this year once they get close to 100 pounds.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What Are Rare Breed Livestock

Many years ago a number of different breeds of livestock existed throughout the world. With the commercialization of livestock, breeders selected a small number of breeds that met their economic needs and production practices. These breeds were then bred to achieve specific traits and soon after every other breed began to disappear. This left a number of livestock breeds that had been around for hundreds of years close to extinction. Over the last few decades, organizations like the American Livestock Breeding Conservancy began working to restore these rare breeds and bring them back from the brink of extinction.

Unfortunately, the traits that worked for commercial farms are not well suited to small farmers who shun commercial practices. These rare breeds of livestock have valuable traits and we wanted to highlight the benefits of these breeds, and that is one of the primary reasons for starting Heritage Lane Farms.

We started with Large Black Pigs, which is an English breed that originated in Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset in southwestern England. This breed was popular until the 1920's when it fell out of favor to more commercially accepted breeds like Yorkshire and Hampshire, which grow more quickly and are easily adaptable to confinement operations. By the 1960's Large Blacks were almost extinct, and even now they remain on the critical list of the American Livestock Breeding Conservancy with only a few hundred breeding pigs in the world. Our pigs came from Texas and there is only one other farm in Washington that we are aware of that raise Large Blacks.

Large Blacks are pasture raised and eat primarily grass, with only a small amount of grain (whereas commercial breeds eat a diet entirely of grain). Large Blacks grow more slowly and can take as long as a year to reach a weight where they can be butchered. The upside is that they are leaner and have a texture and taste that is very different from pork you buy in the store. The other upside is the Large Blacks are less aggressive (they act more like a family dog than a pig) and the boars are not aggressive and can remain with the piglets and sow. The downside of the commercial breeds and production practices is that boars are very aggressive and must be separated from the sow and litter at all times.

We currently have one boar (Lancelot) and one guilt (Guinevere) and our first litter of pigs is expected at the end of September. Both were born in May 2008 at a farm in Texas. They will be bred twice a year and each litter will have about 10 piglets, although the first litter will likely be smaller than that.

It was somewhat of a miracle that we were able to get them as there is a very short list of Large Black breeders and every one that I had contacted was sold out. Last October we contact Cathy Cox at Oleo Acres farm in Leonard Texas who happened to have a guilt and a boar left and it just happened that a person from Walla Walla was driving down in early November to pick up a number of pigs, so ours went along for the ride. At $300 a piece they are much more expensive then finding a local pig on Craigslist, but they have been well worth the extra money.

The Large Blacks were the unofficial start of Heritage Lane Farms and since then we have added Navajo-Churro Sheep and will soon be adding additional breeds of sheep, pigs, and poultry. Each of these will be highlighted in future posts as we work to educate the community on the benefits of rare breed livestock.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Why Heritage Lane Farm

For a number of years Kelly and I have talked about having a small farm that would teach our children valuable life skills. When we lived in Portland we took initial steps to get a lavender farm, but through unforeseen events we ended up moving to Lynden and putting our dreams on hold. For many years we waited for the right time and opportunity before we finally were able to fulfill our dreams. We still have a number of obstacles that will need to be worked through, but we have at least gotten started, although not as gracefully as we would have liked.

As we thought about what we were passionate about one thing we came back to was unique breeds of livestock and heirloom vegetables. We bought a few chickens and turkeys when we moved to Lynden 5 years ago (we still have a few of the chickens left) and learned a lot about animals and fencing. Last year, two of our children participated in 4-H and raised lambs for the fair. We learned about raising sheep and enjoyed the challenges and new opportunities to learn.

Farming is tough work and it is competitive. There are a lot of small and large farms competing for customers and we had to find a way to stand out and try to provide a unique product. I have always done things a bit differently from the crowd (not many people would run for county council after only leaving in a community for a year)and focusing on rare breed livestock that only a few people (or in some cases no one) has in the area seemed like a good way to stand out from the crowd. This also provides us an opportunity to educate people and make a difference. Hopefully the things we grow and raise will be less rare in coming years, but in the meantime it has been educating, challenging and fun all at the same time.

Our other passion is for local food and having some measure of self-reliance. We wanted to raise food that we will eat and enjoy and hopefully have enough left over for others to enjoy along with us. I have my own concerns about the food supply and commercial production of food. I will skip the long editorial, but suffice it to say I do not want to be overly reliant on farmers in other parts of the country or world for a critical item like food. I am a strong advocate for local businesses and especially local food. I would just as soon not participate in corporate agriculture, where feasible, as I have ethical and economic concerns about their business model. My test for the farm is that if commercial agriculture is doing it then I do not want to, and if commercial agriculture is not doing it then it is worth investigating further.

In the end, it become obvious that heirloom vegetables and rare breed animals were something that we could get passionate about for a number of reasons. We are sharing our story as we learn and hopefully encourage others to think outside of the food box. We are not farmers in the traditional sense and we certainly have less knowledge about farming then other people, but we are also not tied down to certain ways of doing things and are willing to try something new. Welcome to Heritage Lane Farm, and welcome to what food was meant to be.