• Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Who doesn’t love the first signs of spring? As soon as we see the sap buckets being readied and hung on waiting maple trees, we know for sure that winter’s grip is beginning to ease. We also know that soon we’ll be making our yearly trek to the sugarhouse near us to witness the age-old rituals and to get a taste of that wonderful sweetness in all its variety, from fancy to dark amber. In this issue, you can learn about the subtle and not so subtle taste differences in maple syrup.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • The Art of Growing Food

    The Art of Growing Food

    Gardeners can always learn from other gardeners, and I’ll admit that some of my best ideas have come from visiting other gardens and drawing from the past. We all start with the same basic ingredients—seeds, soil, and plants—yet the art of growing food can be expressed by a kitchen garden that goes beyond the practical straight rows of a vegetable garden to include herbs, flowers, and vegetables planted with a creative eye to balance color and height and to create an ornamental edible landscape.

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  • Lambing Time

    Lambing Time

    It’s 5:20 a.m. and a pale glimmer of dawn shows in the sky above the Northfield Range. I can just make out the ghosts of the sheep’s breath in the open doorway of the shed, and their dark forms nestled in the deep straw. They hear me coming and rise, grunting, their girths almost impossibly huge this late in March. Two of my 23 pregnant ewes gave birth the day before and the new lambs—two sets of twins—are cuddled close to the warmth of their mother’s bodies.

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  • What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    In May of 2009, then-governor Douglas signed legislation that created the Vermont Farm to Plate Program. Over the following 18 months, hundreds of Vermonters came together at Farm to Plate Regional Food Summits to share ideas and strategies to support new farm and food enterprises and to strengthen local and regional markets for Vermont’s agricultural products. On January 12 of this year, in a packed room at the Vermont State House, the fruit of this excellent effort was presented in a comprehensive, 10-year strategic plan for new investments, programs, and legislation to support the continued development of Vermont’s local food system.

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  • Plant, Weed, Blog

    Plant, Weed, Blog

    When Vermonters think of local food, we tend to think of farmers’ markets, where each purchase comes with a personal exchange. Or we imagine a tour through Vermont’s characteristic working landscape. Or we recall fresh flavors and home-cooked dishes shared with friends.

    Or maybe we think of computers.

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  • The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    We usually think of “food” when we think of “farming,” but many agricultural crops are turned into products that humans can’t eat. Such products are manufactured throughout Vermont today using various crops and livestock, and are therefore, like food items, creating jobs for Vermonters, keeping farmland in active use, and leading our state toward greater self-sufficiency. What follows is a series of articles about nine inedible farm products.

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  • Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    If you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big suprise...

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  • Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Corn in Vermont fields is not uncommon, but wheat? In the 1800s wheat was a common sight on the rocky hillsides of the state, but as the country expanded westward, other land appeared to be more hospitable and profitable for the large production of wheat needed for a growing population. During the past decade, however, wheat in Vermont has had a rebirth of sorts. A small cadre of farmers have, individually and independently, decided to again give it a try by attempting to grow small quantity, high quality wheat—and they’ve been finding success.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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Lambing Time

Twin Lambs

Written By

Helen Whybrow

Written on

March 01 , 2011

It’s 5:20 a.m. and a pale glimmer of dawn shows in the sky above the Northfield Range. I can just make out the ghosts of the sheep’s breath in the open doorway of the shed, and their dark forms nestled in the deep straw. They hear me coming and rise, grunting, their girths almost impossibly huge this late in March. Two of my 23 pregnant ewes gave birth the day before and the new lambs—two sets of twins—are cuddled close to the warmth of their mother’s bodies.

My eyes have now fully adjusted to the dark, so I walk quietly among the expectant flock, looking for signs of labor. If a ewe has carved a nest in the hay away from the others, is not interested in eating, is straining, or has discharge from her vagina, chances are she is preparing to go into labor, although often she will give no sign at all, which is one of the many reasons why I find shepherding both humbling and fascinating: no matter how long you do it, you will have never seen it all.

My oldest ewe, Shy Girl, is clearly in labor in one corner of the shed. She has borne twins or triplets each year for nine years now, and I’ve not yet had to help her, but I always like to make sure things are on track. I get behind her and see a good sign: a perfect presentation of the lamb’s nose nestled above its two pale pointed hoofs. (If you don’t see the nose, or see only one foot, this is an indication that the lamb isn’t coming forward in the easiest way for the ewe to deliver.) I settle in on the steps to wait. A delivery can be as quick as 10 minutes but it can also take as long as two hours. If the ewe’s water has broken and the lamb doesn’t progress on its own after an hour, I am inclined to reach a hand in and help. Sometimes it’s as simple as easing a very large ram lamb’s horn buds around the pubic bone, and sometimes it’s much more complicated. Lambing—because there are usually twins, and sometimes triplets, involved, and because lambs are quite delicate at birth—is generally considered a trickier business than the calving of cows, which is why many shepherds choose to be present.

A few minutes later, Shy Girl’s first lamb, a sturdy white ram, is born and already trying to get to its feet. Icelandic lambs are said to be especially vigorous, given 1,400 years of nearly wild evolution in the spartan hills of Iceland, and I often see the first one up and nursing within four minutes of it taking its first breath. If everything goes this smoothly, my job is to make sure the lamb’s nostrils and airway are clear of any membrane from the birth sac, to trim and tip the umbilical cord in iodine, and to make sure the new babe gets its first drink of that magical, antibody-rich milk called colostrum as soon as possible.

All is well—Shy Girl is nickering to and licking her new arrival, stimulating it to stand and nurse—so I decide to retreat to the house and make a cup of tea while number two is on the way. Lambing season is all about stamina and pacing oneself. I know shepherds who sleep in the barn for a month or check on their flock multiple times in the night; certainly everyone has their way. I try to keep things simple. I breed my sheep so that they lamb when it’s not quite so cold, letting nature help me reduce the odds of a lamb not surviving. I also let my ewes lamb where they instinctively feel they need to—some wander out of the three-sided shed and lamb in the pasture, while others nestle into the darkest corner of the shed. (The paddock is guarded from coyotes by our llama and has good fencing, and so far we’ve not had predators bother the lambs there.) If one is having trouble, either in labor or later, I have lambing jugs I can use. These small pens are useful for getting a nervous mother to bond with her lamb, or for attending to a sick ewe or lamb. But in general I try not to use them, partly because I’m lazy and would rather do fewer rounds of watering and feeding, and partly because I prefer instead to be able to let the flock manage itself as naturally as possible. During lambing season I check the barn around 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and only get up in between if I have a hunch there might be a problem.

Which is the case as soon as I return to the lambing shed with my mug of tea. Russett, a magnificent butterscotch and silver ewe, has taken advantage of the fact that Shy Girl is preoccupied with delivering number two—she is on the ground now, her sides heaving—and has moved in to “steal’” her firstborn. Russett is licking and calling to the little wobbly fellow and all but holding it up to her own teat with a forefoot. A ewe who is close to giving birth can have such a strong hormonal cocktail of mothering instinct running in her blood that she will become a kidnapper, and her milk will come in early as a result. A lamb more than a few hours old will likely ignore her attentions, but this one isn’t sure who his mother is yet. In fact, his newborn brain is quickly memorizing Russett’s distinct scent and voice, and he could soon be bonded to her.

Luckily I am on to Russett. She had done this to Shy Girl before, with disastrous results. A few years before, when she stole one of Shy Girl’s lambs, I left it with her. But sadly, when Russett had her own twins in the night two days later, the much larger, adopted lamb was getting most of her milk, and as a result the newborn twins were severely chilled when I found them. One did not survive. So this time I put Shy Girl and both her lambs in a small pen in the barn, away from Russett. What a commotion Russett went on to make, all that day, calling for “her” lamb! Shy Girl was taking care of him, though, and I knew Russett would calm down as soon as she gave birth. Or so I thought.

That night, the little ram, who I called Flop because one of his ears flopped down over his eye, must have heard Russett calling to him from the shed, got confused, and squeezed through a crack in the lambing jug. When I checked the barn around midnight he was nowhere to be found. I searched the entire barn and finally found him curled up in a ball in the bottom of an old bookshelf that was leaning against the far wall. The inside of his mouth felt cold and wet, like snow. I carried his limp form inside and put him in a box under a heat lamp near the woodstove. Luckily, he came around quickly, and by morning was sucking from a bottle.

Most often, when we have a lamb that needs to be brought to life in the kitchen, we can take it back to the barn and its mother will take over from there. Icelandics are known for their very strong mothering instincts. Over the years we’ve had just one true bottle baby, Bunny (born on Easter), whose mother—a flighty teenager that was in denial that she had ever been pregnant—would not take her back. Bottle feeding is something I try to avoid, again because I’m a lazy farmer who resists inputs like milk replacer or extra work like warming up bottles, and also because I believe that there’s no substitute for mother’s milk and the mother’s warm bulk at night. However, I do milk one or two of the first ewes to lamb and put their colostrum in the freezer for emergencies, and I don’t hesitate to feed a lamb for a few days, even getting up every two hours in the night, if it will save its life.

Flop turned out to be an odd case. He never became a true bottle baby, but because of his unusual arrival into the world he ended up with a democratic approach to family life. He was what is called a “bum lamb,” sneaking up to any udder he saw and bumming a sip or two of milk, usually from behind before the ewe could tell he was an imposter and butt him away. Both Russett and Shy Girl seemed more receptive to him, but at this point he surely didn’t know who his mother was, or even whether he was sheep or human; whenever he saw one of us, he would run over, squeeze under the fence, and follow us around. If one of the girls sat down with him, he would suck on her sleeves and pant legs, ever hopeful. Sometimes we’d give him a bottle because he was such a pathetic, runty thing, but he knew the rubber nipple wasn’t the real thing and quickly lost interest.

We spoiled Flop. He went to preschool with Wren one day. Willow dressed him up in baby clothes. He was showered with love. He was the only ram we’ve ever raised that didn’t get sold for breedstock (much too runty) or sent to the butcher (too beloved). I tell my ewes that if they want their boy babies to live long lives they have to give birth to spectacular studs or adorable runts, nothing in between. Luckily for us, trying to make a living at this business, we don’t have too many on the runty end of the spectrum.

By late April all the lambs are born, charging around the pasture in packs like a gang of street urchins, or climbing on their mothers’ backs and nibbling on their ears when they lie down to rest. Within a week of being born the lambs are also nibbling on the first spring shoots of grass. Soon the whole flock will start a careful, intensive rotation through the lush spring pastures, their muzzles yellow with dandelion pollen.

For me, the greatest joy of being a shepherd is sitting in the field surrounded by the flock, hearing the sound of their chewing. For 10 years now they have moved through the steep pastures of our hill farm, stimulating the grasses, and fertilizing the soil. The change in organic matter, grass species diversity, and density of forage here has been truly dramatic. At the end of the day we are grass farmers first and foremost, and we raise the sheep because we know they are our best tool for building the health of our land. And besides, they make us happy.

Helen Whybrow raises purebred Icelandic sheep and organic high-bush blueberries with her family at Knoll Farm in Fayston.

Photo by Helen Whybrow

About the Author

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Helen Whybrow

Helen Whybrow is a freelance writer and editor. She also raises purebred Icelandic sheep and organic berries with her family at Knoll Farm in the Mad River Valley.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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