New York’s Cortland County, just south of Syracuse and east of Ithaca, is stunningly beautiful in the spring. Rolling hills with their broad expanses of grassy pastures, treed hills and cultivated bottomlands are dotted with modest farmhouses and outbuildings. In May, when I traveled these roads, the trees and bushes were in peak flower and the promise of fruitfulness was everywhere.
A sign that the local food movement has penetrated to this farming heartland is a new grocery store in the city of Cortland, the county’s seat and largest municipality at under 20,000 souls, called The Local Food Market. They have contracted with a local organic grower to provide their produce.
The area’s fertile farmland and access to good markets have also resulted in the presence of a small but growing Amish community. Primarily young families who have moved up from Pennsylvania in search of reasonably priced land, the 50 or so families mostly seem to have started small generalized family farms, including dairies milking 15 to 20 cows.
Their ability to adhere to modern sanitary standards using old fashioned Amish technologies is fascinating. Many of the families ship their milk to the usual processors. Rather than having their own mechanically cooled bulk tank, however, they initially cool the milk at home using a coil which hooks up to a hose and fits on milk can lids. They then run well water through the coil, cooling the milk to about 55˚F. The cooled milk cans can then be loaded into buggies and taken to a transfer station where the milk is further cooled in a bulk tank until pickup.
Another farm family that was attracted to the area’s beauty and reasonable land prices was that of Maryrose Livingston and Donn Hewes, who arrived back in 1999. Donn was a professional firefighter and Maryrose an environmental regulator. When they met in Washington state they each had a small hobby farm. Both knew they wanted to do livestock on a commercial scale, but couldn’t buy farmland in Washington.
“Farmland,” says Maryrose, “is $10,000 an acre in the western part of the state. In the east it is less, but there is no water. East of the Cascade Mountains it’s a desert. You need a water right to farm. And I didn’t want to mine the ground water or divert the Columbia River to grow grass.
“I was dragged kicking and screaming out of Washington,” she continues. “I love it there. But we were looking for a place that had a good growing climate and affordable land. We just started looking east. We had savings and would call realtors, but it was quite hard to even find realtors who would help. I guess it is a lot of work and you can make more money selling a house. Finally I found this woman in Ithaca who had been an organic dairy farmer but now was a realtor. She sent me a stack of listings, we looked through them, and we made an appointment to fly out and look at farms. That is really why we are here. We didn’t know a soul when we got here.”
They bought a farm in Locke, about 30 miles from Marathon, NY. Their plan was to raise 100% grass-fed cows, with which Maryrose had worked, and make and sell cheese. She was a member of the American Cheese-making Society, as was Jane North, who with her husband Karl had founded Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon.
“I called them up,” Maryrose recalls, “to see if we could come over and see how they set up their dairy. Our size and scales were similar. When we met them they mentioned that they were looking for someone who would go into partnership with them so they could retire. Of course we told them we had already bought a farm and were cow people. But we hadn’t lived at the farm we bought for more than a few months and I said to Donn: ‘You know, this is the wrong farm. It is too hilly, it needs too much renovation, the road is too busy, it is just the wrong place. Let’s put it on the market.’ So we did.”
While they were waiting for the Locke farm to sell they decided to travel to Europe to get more ideas about cheese-making and farm set-up. They went for four months, and for two months of that time they worked on a farm in southwest England, milking 100 does and 200 ewes for a well known cheese-maker. While they worked there Maryrose fell in love with the sheep.
“I’ve never been a goat person,” she exclaims, “I’m still not a goat person. But I fell in love with sheep there. So when we came back we told Jane and Karl that if we could sell the farm we would go into partnership with them.”
The farm sold and Maryrose and Donn came to Northland and worked there for five years side by side with the Norths. First they lived in a tent in the woods for six months, then they built a horse barn and lived in an apartment above it. Finally they built a straw bale house.
“The deal that the North’s struck with us,” Maryrose recalls, “was that they would buy the materials for the house and we would provide the labor. Then we would buy it from them when we bought the whole farm. That way they maintained ownership until the sale. We had an escape clause for everyone until the sale was final. It turned out great for all of us. It wasn’t always easy, but we rode it out.”
Just this January the couple made their last mortgage payment to the Norths and now own the farm outright. The Norths are now in northern Maine where they have a daughter and son-in-law. They bought a 40 acre homestead, built another home for themselves, and have a few sheep.
Donn and Maryrose have 57 acres in the home farm they bought from the Norths, and for twelve years have been able to lease another forty acres from a neighbor which they have fenced and which has become their primary grazing land. They are now leasing an additional 40 acres from that neighbor and are fencing it right now. Fifteen acres of their land is wooded and used for cordwood, the rest is open.
“We not only need to graze the sheep,” Maryrose observes, “we also have six horses and mules, and we make hay for them all for the winter. We think we have enough land for our grazing and hay now, but the last two years we ran short on second cutting hay — we needed to graze it instead of cutting it — and had to buy it from a neighbor.”
Compounding the demand for land is the fact that Donn and Maryrose are helping out a young couple, Scott and Aubry, who are using some of the land for an organic vegetable business as well as a raw milk dairy. Both couples also farm with horses, which increases the demand for grazing land and hay.
“Our idea was to cut a bridge,” Maryrose explains, speaking of taking on Scott and Aubry. ”How do some of these young farmers make it? They have been working on farms and gaining some really deep skill sets, but because they have been working on farms they can’t afford to buy land. How can they become farmers? How do you give them some level of autonomy?
“What will happen in the future we don’t know,” she continues. “They have committed for a year here. But it may be longer term and may be a way for them to buy into our farm and for us to retire. We don’t have children, so that is not an issue.”
There are 6 horses in all, a Suffolk Punch and two Percheron mares, and three mules which Donn – whose passion is being a teamster – likes because they are more heat tolerant than the mares. The animals are used for most draft purposes: cultivating, making hay, cutting timber, plowing snow, spreading manure, hauling carts. Maryrose and Donn also keep four pigs in the woods, which they raise on whey, and a flock of chickens. Scott and Aubrey also have a couple of steers besides their milk cows.
The Northland sheep operation is based on a small flock of 40 ewes. Maryrose raises about 7 replacement ewes each year, bringing them into production as 2-year olds. Since the sheep are 100% grass-fed, and the farm doesn’t use chemical wormers, she feels letting the ewes reach full maturity before breeding them contributes to fewer health problems.
“These are cross-bred dairy ewes,” Livingston says. “The mix is East Friesian, Dorset, and Tunis. East Friesian is the Holstein or high-producing variety of the dairy sheep world. But I experimented with a few purebreds and they don’t so as well in our system being 100% grass-fed animals. I like these cross breeds a lot. Dorset is a good all around ewe, with good mothering ability and a good carcass on them. Tunis sheep I am less familiar with. They are primarily a meat variety, but the ewes are good milkers. I got the ewes and ram originally from David Major, in Vermont, and I trust him.”
Maryrose turns the ram in with the ewes in late November and are all bred within one heat cycle, in a couple of weeks. The gestation period of lambs is 147 days, or about 5 months, so she aims for lambing to start in mid April. She weans the lambs when they reach 35 pounds, are 30 days old, and are vigorous. Then the milking begins, twice a day, at the end of May. This seasonal schedule means she milks and makes cheese only from the end of May through November, getting the winter off.
When I visited, the ewes were still nursing and were out in the pasture with lambs at heel. But milking was to start the next week, followed by renewed cheese making. They say that lambs know their mothers, and vice versa, by vocal and facial recognition. The pairs that I saw seemed to have no problem finding each other amidst the general bleating. A few ewes had triplets and one had quadruplets, and Maryrose sold the extras. She says she is done with bottle-feeding lambs!
Donn and Maryrose had to replace their entire flock 3 years ago. The sheep had always had an inherent disease, which came with the original stock when Jane and Karl started the farm. It was a retrovirus, like HIV, called Ovine Progressive Pneumonia.
“It is very common,” Maryrose explains. “They estimate it is in a third to a half of the flocks in the country. You can’t breed it out. As soon as clean sheep start sharing a pasture and a water trough with a diseased sheep, they get it too. So we culled the entire flock. That was hard. But I bought these replacements from David Major and I’m very happy with them.”
She does her own castration of the wethers, using the rubber band method. But she has also done some short scrotum castration, where you take the scrotum before the testicles descend and they stay in the body. The animals are infertile because of the heat of the body cavity. The method is supposed to be less painful for the animals, and results in a better rate of gain.
Donn was off the farm on the day I visited, working at his job as a firefighter. He actually has a great schedule for someone who wants to be a farmer despite having a fulltime off-farm job. He works 2 ten-hour days, then 2 fourteen-hour nights — so he’ll be at the farm all day and then leave at about 5 pm to go to work –- and then he has four days off. So he will have 6 days in a row at home, and then 2 days away.
Maryrose feels that his job takes a lot of pressure off them financially, while letting him participate in the farm in a major way.
“The decisions we have made on the farm,” she says, “aren’t necessarily about the bottom line but about how we want to farm. That has been made possible because we have that income. And the health benefits are very important. I couldn’t be farming without that job. I just had a knee replacement. I was almost defunct last year. But the schedule enables us to manage the farm together. I’m the shepherd and cheese maker, Donn is the teamster. We collaborate on the pasture.
“We think about it extensively,” she continues. “Our pastures are pretty diverse already because we have a lot of natives that come up. But I’d like them to be even more biodiverse. Now that we are leasing some more land we are seeing a little more diversity. But not as much as I would like. I would like to plant more varieties — forbs, legumes, other grasses — into the pastures to amp them up. Donn is not so enthused about that. We have to frost seed in order to keep the legume numbers high. I’d like them to be 60 to 70% but I think they are running about 40% right now. Each pasture is different. We’d like to get birdsfoot trefoil in there, as that out-crosses and reseeds itself. We didn’t do any frost seeding this year. You want freeze-thaw cycles going on to open up cracks in the ground, but the window this year for that was about 2 days when the snow was off. If I win the Lotto I want a fancy seed drill! It would be ground-driven, of course!”
Donn has been working creating a sort of Savanna, or shade paddock, on some of their land by clearing out some trees that have grown up but leaving particular ones that allow enough sunlight for grass to grow. They have also been experimenting with hedgerows for shade. In one by the house they used locusts, which fix nitrogen, grow fast and are a good wildlife food. In another they did an allée planting of basswood and white cedar. Maryrose likes a mix of conifers and deciduous trees for hedgerows because they provide shade when nothing else does. But, she cautions, you to be careful because the conifers can acidulate the ground.
All the pastures are surrounded by a high tensile perimeter fence, and the couple uses ElectroNet fencing for the constantly moving paddocks.
Maryrose says: “It is the best stuff ever for sheep! I love changing the pasture and setting up new ones. I use the fencing sections that are 164 feet long. Right now I change pasture just once a day, to get the lambs used to movement. But once we start milking they will get a fresh break, as we call it, twice a day. How big it is varies – it depends on the grass, the animals, the season. When the grass is growing well a strip might be 150 feet wide by 100 feet long. Sometimes it is just a little strip. Right now, early in the spring, it is a pretty big rectangle. We always have the ElectroNet set for the next area to be grazed before we milk. That way I don’t have to stand there and set fence after milking, but can just move the flock in.”
The sheep are watered from an inch and a quarter water line that runs along the perimeter fence. Every 300 feet is a spur which can be hooked up to a trough with a float-operated valve to supply water on demand – as the sheep drink it down it will fill up again.
Donn has been putting up about 2500 bales of hay, which is not quite enough for their needs. They would like about 3000 and hope with their new leased land they can make that much. He makes square bales with a powered forecart which has a 24 horsepower Honda engine on it that runs a PTO driving the baling equipment. The horses draw the forecart, with a haywagon behind it for the bales. The animals eat hay until the pasture is adequate for them, which happened this year in the second week of May. Donn doesn’t do any haylage or baleage. One, they don’t have the equipment for it and two, Maryrose doesn’t want to do any ensiled feed. She feels it imparts flavors to the cheese and you can have problems with listeria when you feed sileage. As a raw milk cheese-maker she doesn’t want to go anywhere near that.
Maryrose reads a number of periodicals about grazing. She particularly likes the Stockman Grass Farmer.
“I love it,” she enthuses, “and have subscribed since the mid-eighties. It is always about 100% grass based management. I learned my grazing chops in New Zealand in 1996. I worked on a dairy farm there for 6 weeks. That was pretty intensive standard rotational grazing. But now we are doing more of the holistic management style of grazing – keeping a higher stock density.
“But it is hard to do mob grazing with sheep,” she continues. “They just don’t create the kind of disturbance in the soil that you want and get with cows. But we are not turning the sheep in when the grass gets to 4 inches anymore. We are trying to let the grass get more mature – you do get better regrowth when you wait.”
For some reason Donn and Maryrose don’t seem to have problems with predators bothering their sheep.
“We have coyotes here,” reports Maryrose, “I hear them all the time. Our neighbor who keeps a small number of sheep has lost some. But we haven’t. My theory is that our sheep are not out in the field when food is scarce, in the winter. They are in the barnyard then. When they are out grazing, I think, the ElectroNet is pretty off-putting to predators. True, a highly motivated predator will jump over it in a heartbeat. But I think it discourages them. And our sheep are always moving – at least twice a day. Our scent is out there, the dog’s scent is out there. There is always disturbance. That makes predators leery. But maybe we have just been lucky!”
The farm’s main herding dog is a New Zealand Huntaway. Huntaways herd using their bark rather than aggressive movements and Maryrose prefers them to a border collie because she wants her small dairy flock to move slowly to and from the milking parlor. Huntaways are not particularly good at defending sheep, however, she points out.
Parasites are a problem for any confined sheep operation. Northland tries to deal with them mostly through management. There isn’t any silver bullet, as Maryrose says, but there is buckshot! Sun and freezing are effective in reducing parasite loads in pasture. The couple look at the field they are currently grazing, the duration of grazing, and when they are returning to graze it again. For management of parasites, the lambs are the key.
“I never have a problem with the adults,” Maryrose insists. “They have a strong immune system and can fight parasites. But the lambs are stressed during weaning and their immune system isn’t strong yet.”
So the couple doesn’t put the lambs on a pasture that the ewes have grazed, because the ewes are shedding parasites continually. They also try to keep lambs off a pasture the lambs have grazed before — for at least 60 to 90 days. That helps, too.
“We also use alternative tools – the copper oxide wire particle bolus,” says Maryrose. “It is a little pill with tiny particles of wire that are antagonistic to the worst internal parasites of sheep – Haemonchus contortus, the barber pole worm. The worm causes anemia in the sheep and will kill them. It can also persist in the soil for three to five years. The copper kills the worm, however. It is antagonistic specifically to that worm. The brand I use is called Copasure, made by Animax. I use it prophylactically on the lambs. I give it to them once, right around weaning time.”
The Northland sheep gather in a holding area when brought in from pasture, then go up a ramp single file to reach the 6 milking stalls. One person can milk two sheep at a time with the two milking machine vacuum units while cleaning and prepping the other sheep. The dairy where cheese is made is attached to the milking parlor. Under current regulations you can’t have them together, but because Northland operates under a 1987 license, it was grandfathered.
The cheese-making room contains a vat, cheese presses and the molds. The vat is 35 gallons, large enough to hold milk from two days’ milkings. Maryrose seldom makes cheese two days in a row because she doesn’t have enough presses and that many cheeses will create a bottleneck. A chest freezer has been retrofitted and made into a homemade milk can cooler. She fills it with water, puts the milk cans in it, and a pump circulates cold water to cool them.
Livingston explains the way they make cheese: “We milk, bring it in here, cool it, put it in the vat, add culture and rennet, coagulate it, form a curd, put the curd in the molds, press it, salt it, and put it in the cave to age.”
As raw milk products, the Northland cheeses must be aged for at least 60 days. The cave is a large, cool, windowless room under their house. Beautiful, rustic shelves contain many wheels of cheese. On each shelf is a mark showing the date, the type of cheese, and the batch number.
“We haven’t made cheese for a while,” she says, showing me through the cave, “so our stock is down. But we won’t sell all these before we have the new cheeses ready. I have two main kinds. These are the tommes, and in the back are the blue cheeses. Tomme is a hard cheese that originated in the French Alps. To make the blue cheeses I have to introduce a particular mold in the vat with the milk. You can also sprinkle it in the curd. In raw milk cheeses the vat temperature only ever goes up to 86˚F so you don’t worry about killing the mold. I also make a little bit of Pecorino (ed. – Pecora is Italian for sheep and is a name for many Italian cheeses made from ewe’s milk.)”
Donn and Maryrose make about 2000 pounds of cheese a year from their 40 ewes, so one ewe can produce enough milk for about 50 pounds of cheese annually. They have been selling it at $20 a pound retail, no matter which variety. That is a low price, they feel, for quality cheeses.
The Norths had been selling their cheese exclusively at the Ithaca farmers market for the last 30 years. So that’s what Maryrose started doing. But she got tired of it and has withdrawn their membership.
“It was an excellent market,” she explains, “but for the last two or three years it wasn’t as good as it used to be. Even though the market is still really well attended, I have found that more and more people are going just because it is attractive. They will have lunch there, sit by the dock, but don’t want to do most of their shopping because it is so crowded. Parking is a nightmare, too. So I found fewer and fewer people were there for actually buying their food.
“I found the time required to go to the Saturday farmers market was a problem,” she continues. “It is 30 miles away and I had to have someone here to milk and tend the sheep for all that time. Also, at the market not many people want to buy a whole cheese. A tomme is about 6 pounds, and my blue cheese is about 3 pounds — a whole cheese can be over $100. So they all have to be cut for retail sales. We mostly sell half pound wedges and I spend hours and hours cutting and wrapping cheese.”
The couple has thus decided to go wholesale to avoid spending such time in marketing. They have been asking $17.50 a pound wholesale – not too much of a reduction — and getting it. Right now they are dealing with a distributor, Finger Lakes Family Farms, that sells it all over the region. They are not sure which stores carry it. But they also have some queries from New York City cheese shops, where Finger Lakes Family Farms doesn’t go, to which they would like to sell. Maryrose is working on that market now.
The other products the dairy has are meat from culls, sheepskins and wool. A store in Ithaca, The Piggery, has been able to sell all the meat they offer, and a tannery in Pennsylvania is happy to buy their skins. Maryrose shears the sheep herself and sends the wool to a mill in Maine.
Although all the Northland methods meet organic certification standards, so far they have chosen not to become certified. Since she is the president of NOFA-NY, Maryrose hears a little from people curious why they have chosen not to be organic.
“We don’t need it for marketing,” she explains, “it wouldn’t change a thing about our practices, and I certainly don’t want to do all the paperwork! It is a constant discussion, though. Donn thinks we should be certified, but of course he is not going to have to do the paperwork. For me, my real thing is 100% grass-fed. I might get a little more for the meat if the lambs were organic, as organic lamb is unusual, but it is not worth it.”
Asked what she might do differently had she known then what she knows now, Maryrose thinks for a minute.
Finally she says: “If I had it to do over, and were younger, I would have a larger flock than 40 ewes. That size works for us financially, but to have a real impact you need more. It is so hard to even have a viable marketing presence when you are this small. The Piggery has run through our lambs already and there won’t be more until the fall. So we are not a constant presence in the market.
“I would have established more hedgerows earlier,” she continues. “They are great for shade, for nutrient cycling. When you are grazing a pasture that has a hedgerow it is so much better for the animals to have that shade. We have some shade paddocks now, so I am sometimes moving the animals 4 times a day to get them into shade when it gets hot. Just a week or two ago, when we had that real hot spell, the ewes were panting open-mouthed! They were lactating, which raises their body temperature. I had just sheared them, but they were hot animals! The Black Angus steers were warm, but not panting.
“I would also seed warm varieties into the pasture despite my husbands’ objection,” she smiles. “He says you have to always look at the financial sustainability of the system. Buying expensive seed and having the equipment to put it in and get a good germination rate is not sustainable, he feels. But I say that farming is contrived in the first place. We are creating a semi-natural state for these animals. In nature, grazers have been able to move over a large area and get access to a wide variety of plants and forages. But we keep them in strict confines, so we need to give them more variety. It is good for them, for us, for the milk, for the soil.
“I feel,” she concludes, “like I have at least another ten years of farming in me! I’m 54 and Donn is 50. My retirement plan is to still do sheep, but eventually move to just meat sheep and hair sheep (ed. – varieties that tend to be closer to the natural ancestors of sheep with hair instead of a fleece. They tend to be more heat tolerant, resist parasites better, have less hoof problems, and lamb and mother better.) That way I’m not milking and shearing anymore. I love sheep, though, and I want to keep working with them. I love handling them – a small animal, and I love that the flock instinct is still so intact. It all makes it easy for me as a shepherd.”