Archive for June 24th, 2009

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.