Archive for the 'bioregion' Category


Sharon October 11th, 2009

This weekend involved some serious apple picking – we had old friends visiting and a chance to try out a new orchard near us with some interesting old apples.  Now I’m not an old apple snob – or at least not entirely.  I’m very much interested in new introductions coming from breeding programs that reduce dependence on chemical controls, and I think some of the newer bred apples are as good as anything old – Mutsu, for example, is one of the best storage apples in my pantry.

Now apples aren’t a small thing for us – Eli is addicted to apples, they are his favorite food, and we buy about 12 bushels of apples every year (our own trees are just coming into bearing, so this is on top of what we produce), as well as making some cider when we can borrow a press, out of the wild apples on our property.  We dry apples, sauce them, make apple butter, but mostly eat them out of hand.  When anyone says they are hungry in our house, the one thing you can always have is an apple.

We enjoy everything from the earliest Summer Transparents and Oldenbergs that start off the new season to the September gravensteins and cortlands, but for me, real apples begin in mid-October, when the Northern Spies and Roxbury Russets are ripe.  They are tart and crisp, and something about each bite says “more, more.”    Apples grow in other places, of course – New York is only the second largest producer in the US…but to me, apples are inextricably linked with the cold, rocky soil that I was born into in the Northeast.

Today we drove into an Amish neighborhood to find an orchard that mentioned that they have Esopus Spitzenberg apples – Bellinger orchards in Glen/Fultonville for them that are out my way, although I fear that this year, they no longer have Spitzenberg apples.  You see they had a bad year for that variety, and only a few trees, and I pretty much harvested the lot (it wasn’t that much, in defense of my greed ;-) ).  They have a winey taste to them, sweetness, crispness, and an underlying spice – there’s nothing not to love about them. 

My kids can gorge on Pound Sweets (the old fashioned sweets are much better than most sweet apples, more complex) and Baldwins to their hearts content, but I’m hiding my Spitzenbergs, and doling them as a reward to myself and my husband, to be eaten with homemade herbed goat cheese or had as a snack on a particularly productive day, when they are well earned.  My own Spitzenberg trees are still small, but I smile at them a lot, and pat them, give them a nice dose of goat manure and a lot of kind words in anticipation of the days to come. 

It is no accident that we still revere Johnny Appleseed, or that wherever european settlers went, the brought apples.  The apples were a long lasting touch of sweetness, that for some varieties, kept well into winter.  They were food for children who ate few sweets, and not enough fresh things all winter long.  Their juice was sweet and delicious when fresh, and a source of warming alchohol in winter.  The drops fattened pigs or sheep.   They were roasted over the fire at night, and sliced and hung in rings behind the stove to dry.  They were packed into the root cellar and made into pies for breakfast (I have enough old New England WASP in my blood to believe in the merits of pie for breakfast…or really any time ;-) ).  With a mug of beer or cider, a piece of cheese and a chunk of bread the made the perfect, portable, delicious lunch.

Apples are part of my project too – first of all, we eat so many we’d be crazy not to have them.  I read the names on our list, listing places, origins, stories of the past: Roxbury Russet, which came from a neighborhood in Boston near where I grew up; Yellow Transparent, the first apple of summer; Freedom, a new introduction that seems to be resistant to some apple diseases; Baldwin, the old classic apple before Mac, which I vastly prefer; Arkansas Black, which wears its name on its sleeve; Chestnut, a delicious crab cross, tiny and superb; Chenango Strawberry, fruity and tied to my own region; Wolf River, a huge apple from Wisconsin, English Pearmain – perhaps the oldest known apple still in cultivation; Sheepnose, which carries a description in its name…Greening, Winesap, Grimes Golden, Liberty, Lady, Ananas Reinett.

Moreover, our rabbits and goats eat the tree prunings, and the drops.  Sweet cider is our favorite drink, and apples the only fruit that I can get locally all winter long.  We grow other tree fruits and nuts, of course, but while apricots and peaches, quinces and plums please us, there is no other fruit that makes us sigh in delight this way, or whose complexities get discussed, whose favorites get praised and defended as apples do. 

The bags of Spies, Mutsus, Spitzenbergs, Sweets and Macouns came home, but they are only the beginning of our appling – from now until the end of the month, we will be apple foragers, buying from several of our neighbors who grow them, filling our root cellar with boxes of apples in anticipation of the days when the trees are bare and we long for the tang and sweet crunch of autumn.


Ox-Cart Woman: Self-Sufficiency on Our Farm and What's Left Over

Sharon September 16th, 2009

In Octover he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.

He packed a bag of wool he sheared from the sheep in April.

He packed a shawl his wife wove on a loom from the yarn spun at the spinning wheel from sheep sheared in April.

He packed five pairs of mittens his daughter knit from yarn spun at the spinning wheel from sheep sheared in April. 

He packed candles the family made.  He packed linen made from the flax they grew.  H packed shingles he split himself.  He packed birch brooms his son carved with a borrowed kitchen knife. 

He packed potatoes they dug from their garden – but first he counted out potatoes enough to eat all winter and potatoes for seed next spring.

He packed a barrel of apples, honey and honeycombs, turnips and cabbages, a wooden box of maple sugar from the maples they tapped in March when they boiled and boiled and boiled the sap away.

He packed a bag of goose feathers that his children collected from the barnyard geese.

When his cart was full, he waved good-bye to his wife, his daughter and his son and he walked at his ox’s head ten days, over hills, through valleys, by streams, past farms and villages until he came to Portsmouth and Portsmouth Market. – Donald Hall “Ox-Cart Man”

This is Asher’s favorite children’s book, and was one of mine when I was a child.  Hall’s gorgeous language and Barbara Clooney’s folk-art pictures create the impression, not just of a past, but of a different agriculture, and indeed, a different economy than the present one. 
I do not have an ox, or an ox cart, and I travel to market in a Ford Taurus with my children and husband with me, but once year, I take a look at my own resources – the food we grow, produce, forage, preserve – and ask myself “how would my family fare if we had to winter entirely on what we have put aside this year?  Moreover, what would we have that we have made or grown that is left over?

Now obviously, I store a good bit of food that I don’t grow, so this question is somewhat abstract – if one of my harvests fails, I can draw on prior reserves.  Nor do I think that I’m in immediate danger of having to live entirely from the sweat of my (and my spouse’s and a bit of my kids’) brows.  But I ask the question because I think it is an important measure of how we are directing our energies. 

Most people will answer this question very differently than I am – they may be drawing on different resources, not just food production, but what they can salvage, what skills they can sell, what resources they might be a conduit for. An urbanite might look at it differently – but I still it worth asking for an urbanite “could we last a week or three on our garden?”  How about our other resources? 

It would be easy, as we move towards more serious farming, to devote most of our resources to cash enterprises.  This has been the way of modern agriculture – farmers sell food, and then buy food.  When something has to be sacrificed on the altar of “efficiency”, it is the farmer’s self-sufficiency.  Thus we see the gardens – both home and truck – that once characterized farms erased, and replaced with more fields.  The small scale polyculture that once accompanied even fairly large scale grain farming is gone, and now the farmer’s pork and milk come from the store, just like everyone else’s, rather than from the farm.  The erasure of this food from agricultural lands means that many farmers couldn’t feed themselves any better than city dwellers, unless, for example, they liked an unremitting diet of feed corn and soybeans.

I, on the other hand, am striving for more diversity, and greater self-sufficiency, not less.  Our cash enterprises are important – they are essential, in fact – we need to make money from our farm.  But for us, the process is different than the modern one – the cash enterprises are integral, but so is self-sufficiency, as it was for Hall’s New England farmer. 

This is a radically and fundamentally different vision of agriculture – one that begins from the sufficiency of the producer and moves outwards.  It is the agriculture of the generalist, and thus diversified, and perhaps more importantly, creates an economy of small scales.  If self-sufficiency comes before profit, rather than as a side hobby after it, then time must be reserved from cash enterprises to feed one’s household a diverse and tasty diet.  The easiest way, then, to make money, is to make sure that there is something left over from your sufficiency projects – ie, that while you are knitting mittens or making candles or growing potatoes for yourself, you also add enough to sell to pay the taxes and meet other needs. 

Why prefer this to more profitable models?  Well, there are both aesthetic and ethical considerations, as well as the usual “prepping for tough times” elements.  The practical ones are simple - subsistence labor is mostly untaxed (it isn’t always supposed to be untaxed, but that’s another issue) – to the extent that I meet my needs at home, I do not have to pay extra taxes upon my work, increasing my net.  Moreover, for people with families, subsistence labor is compatible with family life in ways that many forms of cash labor are not – I don’t have to pay for childcare or elder care while I do it.  Moreover, in tough times, subsistence labor reveals its value – it won’t meet all needs, but it can reduce them when cash work is less available or prices are falling.  We are already seeing farmers struggle to be paid enough to justify their labor – in the Great Depression, cash crops failed, but farmers who could keep their land were able to feed their families from subsistence – the subsistence economy is larger, more robust and more vital than the dollar economy.

The aesthetic reasons are simple as well – I think a mix of field and forest, wild and domestic animal, a diverse diet and wide range of plants and insects is more beautiful, more worthy of my time.  Some people may not be able to choose beauty, but I can, and I think it is important.  Ethical is also simple – more creatures live because of me, both live and tame.  The farm can grow more crops, which means it can feed more people even in tough times, when crops fail.  Feeding ourselves means that I depend less on resources that do harm – and reducing my need for cash and my time spent earning it means that I pay fewer taxes to support my war machine and Wall Street bailouts, and I am less tempted to indulge in consumption. 

Now, of course, this is easy for me to say.  I write books and my husband teaches, and if they hardly make us affluent (we would qualify for food stamps in our state, although obviously, we don’t use them), it gives us a leeway in the cash economy (at least for now) not granted to others.  But it is precisely because I can begin from this kind of agriculture, one that starts from the premise that we should meet our needs first, and then go outwards with the extras, that I do it.  I think in the longer term, this model of agriculture has a future, even if it is difficult to enact now, and so I can enact it, and provide something useful to those who cannot know but may later have no choice.

So I inventory, and I evaluate.  Could we feed ourselves?  Keep ourselves warm?  Meet other needs?  How well are we doing at our root project?   More importantly, how would our practices change if we needed to feed ourselves?

As I said,  think this is is a worthwhile effort even for those with small gardens who already know they can’t feed themselves directly.  Ask yourself what of your needs could you meet?  What might you have left over, in various scenarios, to take to market or to add to your cash economy?  Even a small scale gardener with a few beds may be able to produce more culinary herbs than he needs, with some to take to market, and even an urban producer might be able to keep a couple of hives of honeybees, in excess of their needs.  But also figure out the balance – are there needs of your own for food, fertility, fiber that you might be able to fill with a change in practice?  If your practice will have to change eventually, is there a plan for that?

On to our situation.  First, the garden.  Our potato crop was short this year – I’ve not dug the whole, but I think we will come in at under 250 lbs.  The rain and bad weather were tough on them.  This would be a problem, since we are six people, and 250lbs of potatoes would not last us, were they one of our primary staples.  I grew about 6 bushels of flour corn this year, enough to keep us in cornbread for much of the winter, or to feed a portion of our animals.  If we had to do both, we’d struggle.  I grew 2 bushels of high protein sunflower seeds – these will go mostly to the chickens, but we could eat them.  I also grew about a bushel each of buckwheat, oats and amaranth, which would be divided between us and the animals.   

I put up 1 1/3 bushels of dry beans of various kinds, and another half bushel of soybeans. Protein will be short in this diet, but fortunately, we had an enormous crop of turnips and beets – golden mangels produced gorgeously for me.   Winter squash and sweet potatoes did badly, as did the pumpkins, but I’ve got some to add to our winter delight, and a decent supply of carrots and parsnips. Cabbages, kales and collards did well, however, and will probably last us a good while.

In winter in upstate NY, green things will be in short supply – we’ve been in the habit of eating greens several times a day.  Season extension can keep us in fresh greens through December, maybe into January.  Cabbage will last us until February or maybe even into early March.  And then we’ll rely on sprouts to provide us with green nutrition – I saved some seed from broccoli, chard and collards gone to seed this year, and will collect more seeds, including seeds of edible weeds for sprouting.  But I’ll be wishing I’d saved more seed, and that will have to go on next year’s priority list.

I put up enough jam to last the winter, particularly if we aren’t eating a lot of bread (no wheat).  Sweet things will be welcome on this diet. Our apple crop was small, but I’ve got applesauce from the summer apples.  Dried apricots, peaches, strawberries and cherries supplement things – not nearly as much fruit as our family would like to consume, but we’ll be ok.  The elderberry crop was very good, and I’ve got a lot of them dried and syruped.  I haven’t yet harvested rose hips, but that will come shortly, so we shouldn’t suffer from scurvy or anything.

The hazelnuts are doing ok, but not providing a huge harvest yet.  But the hickory nuts are extremely plentiful this year, providing needed proteins and fats.  If we can race the squirrels, we’ll do adequately, although there won’t be a huge amount of fats and oils, unless we butcher a lot of the livestock.

We’d be making a major shift in sweetening – we eat more sugar than we should, like most people, and since we did tap our maples, but we only have a few good sized ones in our third-growth woods, we’d be using sweetening very sparingly indeed, unless what was left over could barter us some honey or maple syrup from a neighbor.  This would probably be a high priority.

On to the barnyard.  Here we come to the root conflict – how much of our resources do we devote to feeding the animals, and how much to feeding ourselves?  The farm’s later cash flow depends on us making an increase in our kine ;-) – being able to sell goat kids, eggs, wool, meat.  It would be easy to emphasize this.   The animals also provide us, in many cases, with better nutrition – and in the case of dogs and cats, with necessary nutrition.  In a place where vegetable fats are harder to grow than in warm climates, animal fats provide a useful replacement.  But that means shifting some of the grain over to the animals for the winter.

In the net, our property grows grass better than it grows vegetables – our property is steep and wet, and the grass produces more protein for us, more habitat for wildlife, more fertility in the form of manures, more diversity, and a more manageable workload when we add animals. It would cost us something to overwinter the animals – but it would cost us more in the net, both in cash receipts and in long term food quality and quantity to slaughter all the animals (besides the cost in emotion).  The goats particularly make good use of our forest land, at our scale making light use of our woodland and giving us milk in return.

Moreover, there’s the question of manures, which already provide a lot of our garden fertility.  We could switch to humanure to provide that fertility, and to collecting leaves in the woods and hauling them back to our garden, but the balance would be more difficult, and we must then postulate a society in which one can sell produce fertilized with humanure – possible, even likely if we had to, but we’re not there yet.  Moreover, even though we high temp compost our humanure, I’d rather use ruminant manures for a host of reasons, along with human urine.

The sheep (hypothetical at the moment, but forthcoming) don’t need grain over the winter at all, only hay, and we’ve got that.  But we didn’t put it all up – we bought it from our neighbor.  So it depends on how we handle this – if we have to erase anything we didn’t produce, we can’t winter many animals at all, and might as well eat or sell them.  But we could have easily produced by hand (ok, not “easily” – it would have been a lot of hot, hard work, but we have the land for it, the tools and the ability), so I’m going to allow for the hay.  We have enough to winter our goat herd, plus 5 thrifty sheep, particularly if we breed for later lambing and kidding, so that the grass is lush while the pregnant critters are doing the last two months of growing.  We would not breed again in autumn, since that means that kids will have to grow on hay, rather than on pasture.

So what’s the best balance between feeding them and feeding us?  In this scenario, I think we’d produce only warm-season milk, drying up the goats over the winter, and preserving their milk during the warm weather as cheese.  This is something I haven’t done – we’ve made some cheese, of course, but not on the scale we would in this case.  We would probably not allow the flock size to rise about 6 or 7 does.  They would give less milk with less grain, but not none, and the majority of it would be put aside for cheese.  We’ve intentionally chosen a breed that produces a prodigious amount of milk on fairly small inputs, and also has a fairly small impact on the forests we would graze them in.

The same is roughly true with eggs – instead of expanding our laying flock, what we’d do is try and figure out an optimum number that can be wintered over – less than a dozen, definitely.  These would provide much-needed eggs for dense protein in early spring as the stores began to run out, and the rest of our flock would be eaten in early winter, canned as soup and meat.  In the spring we’d set hens, and raise what we would on food scraps, forage and a small amount of grain, and eat last year’s layers in the fall. 

Sheep flock, again, would be kept small, with just one or two replacement ewes each year, and we’d eat and sell more mutton, along with the lamb, as we culled sheep.  I would add a few rabbits, fed mostly on weeds and hay, along with a few roots, to provide meat for sale (we keep kosher, although if we had to, that would pass), and organs for the cats, who are obligate carnivores, and also urgently needed (we can’t afford food loss) rodent reducers. 

Had I known that we were going to make a total shift to our own production (ok, we’re not, but again, hypothetically), I’d have added geese, rather than turkeys this year, since they can produce fat, meat, down and eggs on almost no inputs – we’ve had them before, but the market demand for turkey is greater than for goose.  But turkeys are more demanding and don’t forage as well. 

For needs other than food, we could definitely meet them – we have plenty of woods to provide our fairly modest heating needs.  But that would mean more time in the woods for both Eric and I in winter, and a lot less remunerative labor.  It is a delicate balance, cash and subsistence – for now I am content to get wood from a close neighbor who cuts some of it off our property in trade, carefully, wisely, furthering our forestry goals.  Later…we would do it ourselves.

Fertility would be produced by our animal manures, human urine, and compost.  Much of our fertility is provided this way already.  We’d miss kelp and the occasional application of greensand, especially in containers, but we’d be mostly ok.  Humanures are used on woody plantings, and would continue this way. We could also go some small way to providing our fiber needs  with wool and animal skins, and also our medicinal needs (provided no crisis exceeds them).

The first year would be hardest, in our hypothetical situation, because we did not fully plan for it.  Which is, of course, why I store food and feed for the animals – so that we do not now have to practice the sort of husbandry we would practice in the future.  With our reserve of feed grains, we know that we could feed ourselves through this winter on milk and meat, and move over the growing season to our new necessities.  

We’d eat a lot more meat and a lot fewer staple starches than we’d like the first year, since so many animals would have to be culled.  Sweets would be short, and probably tempers as sugar-habituated parents and children changed tastes. We’d miss fresh fruit. Our new management practices would probably kill some of the animals we’d hoped would survive, as they were forced to shift rapidly to a different style of management. 

Our cash economy would shift radically as well – obviously, we’re a farm – by definition we produce more than we need.  But the priorities of our cash economy would have to change – unable to winter over so many animals, we’d sell more breeding stock and meat, and less milk and eggs.    The medicinal herbs might rise in value, if the situation were dire enough, or they might fall rapidly, and be replaced (beyond our own personal supply) with higher value crops.  We are likely to find our primary barter partners among those who have orchards, honey bees, and sugarbushes, since I won’t deny the pull of sweetening – not just due to addiction, but for preservation, alcohol making and other purposes. 

We would sell few vegetables, but some – because we have so little suitable land, my sense is that actually we might do better growing seed – there are few seed producers in my region, and seed can be a high value crop.  So while we would sell our extra root crops and vegetables, I think our best work would be in saving and growing out local seed so that our neighbors could grow their own. 

Our diet would shift radically, away from many preferred foods, towards less preferred ones – more turnips instead of rice, oatmeal as an occasional treat rather than a standard morning breakfast.  Much less sweet, salt and fat…much more meat (for the first season, and mostly early in it, later much less), and fewer eggs, milk and cheese in winter.  Tamales and hoecake instead of wheat bread.

Our garden would change – more beans, more food for animals, more staple crops.  I suspect we’d still rely primarily on roots.  The “flavoring” crops would get less space – hot peppers and tomatoes would still make an appearance, but their economic value to us would most likely be lower if other people were in the same situation.  The question of how much we are called upon to feed others, and what foods are needed in the marketplace and among our neighbors remains open in this scenario – one can only plan so much.

What I find useful about this exercise is the balancing act – how would my practices of gardening and farming have to change?  What kind of husbandry would I be doing? How easy or hard would it be to make those changes, from the present ways?  What can I do to make that transition easier?  Moreover, it makes me ask “what will I be eating?”  How will my diet change?  Are there changes I can make now – finding new recipes for foods we use less, cutting back on things like salt and sugar that we should be eating less of anyway?  How can I diversify now, add more crops, begin to fill gaps in our self-sufficiency, while also responding to markets as they exist now.

I see, for example, that it might be wise to add geese to our husbandry next spring, and bees as well, and that I should be saving more seed now, whether for winter sprout sandwiches or to trade with the neighbors.  There are tracks I can take now that increase our options later.  In other cases, I will continue my current practice, because they meet our needs for now – giving us milk and goats for sale, and helping other people get access to small goats and meat rabbits.  But I will both recognize the need for transitional tools to shift over, and a concrete plan for that shift.

I don’t anticipate a situation where I’m suddenly thrown back on my resources – but I do think that there will be a gradual shifting (and that it is conceivable that it might not be gradual) towards a world in which feeding yourself as much as you can first, makes a lot more sense – back to the world of Donald Hall’s Oxcart Man, who took with him to market only what he had that was left over.


Thinking Local Part I: Bringing the Sheep Back

Sharon June 24th, 2009

Note: This is the first in an intermittent series of posts on my bioregion, and how it might create sustainable industries and a viable long term economy.  All of us are going to have to figure out how to create local economies where we are – we’re going to need the jobs, we’re going to need the goods, we’re going to need to think about the long term as we do it.  These are my musings on how New England and Northern NY might begin to adapt.  I hope others will consider how this might work in their region, and link to their considerations in comments. 

In the early 19th century, the northeast was dotted with sheep farms.  In 1809, Thomas Jefferson appointed William Jarvis as ambassador to Spain, where Jarvis met the Merino.  For those of you who are not fiber-aware, Merino is the softest wool out there, often wearable by people who think they can’t wear wool – there is nothing scratchy about it. 

Jarvis imported 15,000 sheep into New England, and their wool sold at a shocking (inflation adjusted) $100lb.  The old stone walls that wander through second growth woodlands and along old homesteads in the Northeast often kept in flocks of sheep, and many of the old farmhouses were built with sheep money. 

In the late 1830s, however, the sheep industry began to collapse.  All animal agriculture has boom and bust cycles – the Merino sheep was the alpaca of its day, starting out selling for high prices, but the very reality that animals reproduce themselves means that those extremely high prices can never last.  Moreover, industrialization pushed back the wood industry – the railroad lines transported western wool back to the mills in the Northeast, coal heating made the need for woolen blankets fall and the industrialization meant more people working inside, in mills and offices, rather than outside.  Wool flooded the market, and since Merino sheep have a characteristic lanolin flavor to their meat which many people do not like, meat sales couldn’t keep the market up.  After that, there was a shift to dairy farming, and then to suburbanization – in many ways it was the beginning of the long collapse of New England agriculture, and the words “Go West Young Man” institutionalized the fall.

Well, I suspect that we’ll be hearing “Go north and east, young man” in the next decades.  Why?  Well, drought for one. The Goddard Institute of Space Science offers drought maps that show chronic drought affecting most of the West and Southwest US.  The pumping of rivers and aquifers and declining rainfall mean that predictions are increasingly clear – much of the agricultural production of the west may end in the coming decades.  The wettest part of the United States in most projections is the upper-midwest and the Northeast.  Because so much of US water use is used in agriculture, it is pretty accurate to say that water is agricultural destiny.  Thus, we can expect to see agricultural production returning to the wetter parts of the Southeast, remaining in the Midwest, and coming back to the Northeast.

And yet, I think we all realize that climate change would have to do a pretty awful number on things before most of, say, Vermont, became the place you’d want to grow wheat ;-) .  It simply makes sense to think in terms of the region’s agricultural strengths – and to strategies for agriculture that are adaptive, and sustainable. 

Now sheep have their issues from a sustainability perspective – in the early 1900s, most of what is now forest in the Northeast was cleared for farming, wood heating and, yes, pasturage.  80% of the great Eastern forest was missing – and we all know what happens when you cut down too many trees.  Sheep were a factor in this – as wool and meat prices fell, the pressure to raise more sheep, clear more land drove farmers.  When the prices collapsed altogether, that created the grounding of the forest that now allows Moose to travel down corridors of woodland from Northern Maine and the Adirondacks to Boston and New York City – that is, the great Eastern forest is to a large degree, a product of two things – the collapse of Northeastern agriculture, and the rise of first coal and then other fossil fueled methods of heating.

If Northeastern agriculture is coming back, and if fossil fuels for heating are likely to be expensive or eventually unavailable, the largest single forested biome in the US – the Great Eastern Forest – risks being deforested for home heating, turning into a new and treeless land, and, of course, accellerating our experience of global warming.  This must not be allowed to happen.  Hence the sheep – true, they are implicated in our history of deforestation, but in some measure, they may be the answer to it as well.  For much of our land is steep, rocky and grazable, and we may be able to use less of our forests if we carefully and wisely integrate small flocks of sheep into our work.

Woolen clothing has the enormous virtue of being extremely warm, warm even when wet.  Woolen blankets and down (also once a local crop) mean that one can reduce one’s wood heating to central areas – allowing people to remain cozily in bed in unheated rooms (I sleep this way myself, and strongly prefer it to sleeping in warm rooms – this was the Northeastern norm for many years, and it is not at all unpleasant, indeed, the contrary, when you are used to it).  Wool clothing allows one to be outside in snow and rain and still remain warm – it is actually warmer when it is wet. While we have replaced wool for the most part with space age petroleum based fabrics, few of these are manufactured in the US, and none of them are sustainable.  And most petroleum based fabrics do not breathe, as wool does – that is, shifting from outside chopping wood to inside in front of the fire is extremely uncomfortable in most fossil fuel clothes – wool is breathable, and comfortable in a good range of temperatures.

But there’s something else wool is good for – home insulation, and that’s a need that will only grow in the Northeast.  300 mm wool batt insulation has an R44 value, while also being non-toxic, non-outgassing, fire-retardant and requiring no use of fossil fuels, and being a good use of wool that is too coarse for clothing.  Right now there are only a few manufacturers of wool insulation in North America, mostly in Canada, but there is enormous potential for the industry to grow up where it is badly needed – here in the Northeast, where the oldest housing stock in the country exists, and where most of that housing is badly insulated.  Because of its small niche market, right now wool insulation is more expensive that toxic petro-insulations, but that could change over time – most likely will change.

The problem, of course, is getting the industry started.  Wool prices are, as they say, in the toilet.  The wool act of 1954 instituted price supports for US wool against foreign competition, but was phased out in the 1990s.  Wool production has been declining rapidly since the 1960s in the US, and is now only a 30 million dollar a year industry.  At usually well under a buck a pound, most sheep producers cannot support themselves on wool alone – and the lamb market in the US is still far smaller than the market for beef or other meats.  But there are good reasons to consider advocating and creating conditions for a regional shift, particularly to small flocks and local industries.  Multipurpose small livestock are suitable to very small acreage – that is, instead of a moderate number of sheep farmers with ever-bigger flocks, getting ever richer, sheep in the northeast are well suited to small acreage, rainy climates and mixed land. 

In the short term, I suspect the future of sheep in the northeast may be as sustainable landscapers, that also provide wool and meat.  That is, the largest single agricultural enterprise in the region is lawnscaping and lawn maintenence – as farming has been lost here, lawn production has expanded. Certainly, some of that land could be used for gardens and must be – but all the land will not disappear at once, and just as western farmers have found work with their goats as brush clearers and fire risk reducers, and beekeepers in providing pollination, I suspect there is a potentially successful industry in small scale localized sheep farmers moving their sheep around a network of parks and suburban lawns, providing “mowing” service.  At first, this might well provide the income stream for new sheep farmers while local wool industries are being redeveloped.

I hope we will not see sheep monocultures – because we need a diverse range of sheep breeds to make this a viable sheep producing region – one of the culprits in the Merino boom and bust was the overproduction of a particular breed.  We will need a range of dual purpose sheep that produce both meat and wool, lamb easily and have good parasite resistance (or as good as any sheep ;-) ), along with some merinos for long underwear and knitting, and meat sheep that do well on pasture alone.  Perhaps the single best argument for the reintroduction of sheep is their very minimal grain requirements, even in pregnancy and nursing. 

If the Northeast is to gradually transition to sustainable agriculture again, it will have to be done carefully, wisely and with an eye to the longer term.  That means drawing gently on our strengths – coppice wood for home heating, sugar maples (although with climate change I fear sugar maples may not be a multi-generational investment for most farms), dairy, potato and root production and other things that do well in our climate, with our soils.  Sheep, and a wood industry are potentially a part of this project – not all of it – I would not wish us to return to the boom and bust cycle of the 19th century.  But a piece of a larger, deeper project – bringing the farms back east.