hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Finding fulfillment in a grass-fed flock

Professor’s sideline grows into full-fledged farm



Contributing writer

Jennifer Phillips' love affair with grazing animals, and her subsequent farming career, started 10 years ago when she acquired a few lambs to mow her then two-acre yard.

“I got my initial inspiration for mowing with sheep from the cover story of an ancient issue of Organic Gardening,” Phillips recalled.

In 2001, after two decades in New York City she had just moved to Stuyvesant, in northern Columbia County, to take a faculty position at Bard College's Center for Environmental Policy.

Today, the assistant professor of environmental science produces grass-fed meats in the sleepy town of Clermont, where she owns Gansvoort Farm. (The name means “goose crossing” in Dutch.)

Ten years ago, as a complete novice at raising sheep, Phillips jumped at every opportunity to develop her skills and understanding as a grass-based farmer. At pasture walks and workshops, she directed her many questions to more experienced graziers.

But these days, people getting started with grazing animals are increasingly turning to Phillips for her knowledge and guidance. Last month, Cornell Cooperative Extension held a field day at Gansvoort Farm that attracted more than 40 farmers and farm interns.

Phillips’ animals – a flock of nearly 170 mainly Icelandic ewes and their lambs, plus a dozen Red Devon cattle -- spend their entire lives outdoors, rather than in a barn. For most of the year, they graze on a diverse mixture of pasture plants, including orchard grass, perennial rye, meadow brome, timothy, white, red and alsike clovers, birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa and chicory.

When the pasture runs out toward winter and during severe drought, they receive hay. But grain and other concentrated feeds simply have no place in their diet.

At Gansvoort Farm, Phillips’ managed grazing system greatly increases the productivity of the land. She sees the carrying capacity of her 60 acres of pasture growing every year. Building on her academic background (she holds a doctorate in agronomy), she is attuned to the pasture ecosystem as well as to the needs of her grass-fed livestock.

Every 24 hours, Phillips moves each group of animals to a fresh paddock using portable electric fencing -- netting for the sheep, and a strand of wire for the cows. She gauges the size of these temporary paddocks to allow the animals to eat the plants down to about 3 or 4 inches in height.

Each particular patch of pasture won’t be grazed again for three weeks. This allows the grasses and legumes to recover and grow again before the next grazing.

By comparison, at farms where pasture is grazed continuously, even for a period as short as a week or two, the plant species that livestock prefer tend to get depleted. In their place, undesirable plants like thistle, burdock or multiflora rose often take hold. The animals' constant nibbling and trampling also can leave bare ground exposed, setting the stage for soil erosion.


From borrowed field to real farm
After Phillips started with her first lambs, it didn't take long before to see the promise of a neglected field across the road from her Stuyvesant home. She watched its seasonal progression into a colorful mess of late summer goldenrod, thistle, and milkweed that was too rank to nourish livestock.

Imagining the field in grass and clover, Phillips borrowed a Farmall tractor from the owner of the field and mowed six acres one fall, then pastured her tiny flock there the next spring.

“Mowing made it instantly beautiful,” she recalled.

Every year she brought back more land. By 2008, her sixth and final year on the Stuyvesant farm, she was managing 70 sheep and 18 beef cattle and dairy heifers on 35 acres of pasture.

Phillips suspects that if this field in plain view hadn’t been available, she would never had tried her hand at farming, which she said is now the greatest source of contentment in her life. Though she did sink about $7,000 into permanent fencing, the field’s owners never even charged her rent. She gave them a freezer lamb every year.

“Having an opportunity to learn the ropes and grow my business without having to pay a mortgage was essential to getting me going,” she said. “I'm very thankful.”

Foreseeing her livestock numbers outgrowing the limited acreage in Stuyvesant, Phillips embarked on a search for a more appropriate location. Around the same time, she was able to change her Bard position to part-time, freeing up more time for farming. But buying a farm seemed impossibly expensive, and she needed to be close to the college.

Finally she approached a large landowner in Clermont who had been one of her graduate students. The landowner was beginning to envision the resurrection of agriculture on her land, and Phillips negotiated a nine-year lease on 86 acres and a barn.

The land, once a vegetable and fruit farm, had been abandoned in 1991 or 1992, so Phillips had to invest lots of labor and money to transform it into a pasture operation. Under the favorable terms of her lease, all improvements, like the water system and permanent fencing, belonged to the owner, who treated them as advance rent payments.

In March, after renting the land for three years, Phillip was miraculously able to buy the farm. The land conservation group Scenic Hudson purchased its development rights, bringing down the price by a whopping 55 percent. On top of that, the sympathetic seller worked with her to create affordable terms.

The property lacked a house, but Phillips was able to convert another building on the farm into a cozy cottage. The structure originally had provided housing for farm workers, and the previous owner had made into her office.

Reluctant marketer finds a niche

On farms where one person is responsible for everything, usually some major area of responsibility gets short shrift. Phillips said her weak link lies with marketing.

Until now, Phillips has been selling her lamb directly to individual customers as whole or half animals, with a few carcasses going to chefs. Phillips’ lambs are ready from late September to early December, and each lamb is cut to order. She rents space in a cold storage facility five miles up the road and distributes the meat there.

The animals are butchered at a tiny custom slaughterhouse operated by another farmer in the fall and winter. Although Phillips can’t sell meat by the cut -- or to stores or restaurants -- from this facility, as it’s inspected only by the state and not by the federal government, she sees other advantages with the other farmer’s service.

“I like the fact that he’s not killing animals 24-7,” Phillips said.

And with such a “super small” facility, she added, she can be confident that the meat she gets back is from her own animals.

Phillips attracts new customers with a bright yellow sign on Route 9 at the foot of her driveway -- and through a listing on EatWild.com, a Web site she said draws “tons of traffic” to 100 percent grass-fed producers.

Even so, with her growing flock, she had been unsure how she would all of his year's lamb.

Then, she says, she got “super lucky.”

Kinderhook Farms, a nearby grass-based livestock operation, suggested Gansvoort Farm to a family-run, high-end business in New York City that was looking for a local source of wool and pelts.

“They couldn’t find anyone with wool,” Phillips said, because farmers with larger flocks have been increasingly turning to hair sheep. These sheep shed in the summer, rather than producing wool that must be sheared every spring. At prices as low as 20 cents a pound through local “wool pools,” the return on wool doesn't even compensate the farmer for the cost of shearing, let alone rearing the animals.

The New York City husband-and-wife team owns Marlowe and Daughters, an artisan butcher shop, as well as two farm-to-table restaurants and a boutique hotel. They bought all the wool Phillips had last year.

This year, they bought her wool and pelts and have arranged to receive regular deliveries of whole lamb for meat this fall. Their commitment to using the entire animal is unusual, even in the realm of farm-to-table enterprises.

With wool, they are able to make their philosophy work financially by adding value with attractive handcrafted products, such as knitted sweaters and felted vests.

This spring, when Phillips billed them for her wool, she was astonished to receive encouragement to raise her prices.

In the past, Phillips wasn’t particular about quality in her wool, as she only had gotten it made into woolen comforters, which took her some time to sell. But now that she has an eager, discerning buyer, she considers wool in her breeding decisions, taking her cue from the place of sheep in history as a dual-purpose animal for both meat and wool.

“Think how important wool was before synthetics came along,” she said. “It was critical in cold climates to have wool.”

And after this buyer emerged and was willing to pay well for colored pelts, she also abandoned her goal of an all-white flock.


Low-stress lambing?
When lambing season arrives, shepherds often have their sheep in a barn. Many are accustomed to getting up in the middle of the night to check on their ewes and newborns and intervening when any of the animals are in distress.

In contrast, Phillips has been taking a laissez-faire approach to lambing. She is able to get a good night’s sleep while nature takes its course, without fear of significant losses.

This year, from April 26 until mid-May, the 55 ewes of Gansvoort Farm gave birth to 115 lambs. Only two lambs didn’t survive.

Phillips believes her pasture system is more conducive to safe and successful lambing because the animals have space to get away from the flock and give birth without interruption. She also feels that her rigorous selection process has paid off.

“If you select very stringently for characteristics like good health and reproductive success, rather than relying on drugs or a lot of handholding, you end up with a flock that is more or less maintenance-free and requires less labor,” she said.

At the end of January every year, she culls the flock based on her records. Ewes that had worm problems, lambing difficulties or mastitis get sent to the butcher. These days, she usually culls only three or four animals annually.

“The other day, somebody said to me, ‘I heard sheep are really fragile,’” Phillips said. “And they do have the reputation of getting sick all the time. But I completely think that is the result of giving them drugs for every single ailment, keeping them in the barn all winter and not culling for healthy animals. Over the last 30 or 40 years, that’s the way small flocks have been raised in the Northeast. You walk away and they keel over.”


Heat, predators and pests
Besides lambing on pasture in mid-spring, Phillips follows other practices endorsed by the organization Animal Welfare Approved. She doesn’t dock tails on sheep or cows, and she always provides fresh water in every paddock.

Because sheep don’t do well in hot weather, on any day when the temperature will exceed 75 she provides them with pasture that has shade. Planting more shade trees around the farm has become a priority.

Predators, such as coyotes, can devastate a flock in no time. Some livestock farmers advocate killing coyotes, but Phillips vehemently disagrees.

“I have a theory that the coyote you know is better that the coyote you don’t,” she said.

Not all coyotes attack livestock. Pups learn to hunt and what to eat from their mothers and other elders in the pack. When resident coyotes are killed, Phillips says, the ones that move in to replace them may be more aggressive.

Though there are “tons of coyotes" in the neighborhood, she said she has never had a problem with them.

“I hear them every night,” Phillips said.

Keeping a high-voltage charge in her portable electric fence has been sufficient to protect the flock. She has been careful, though, never to leave a fence upright without it being electrified.

Phillips started out with Finn Dorset crosses, which she purchased from the founders of the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. But the 140-pound ewes were a little big for her to easily handle. Many of them also had long tails, which in this climate can attract a nasty parasitic fly if the tails aren’t docked.

Most of her sheep these days are Icelandics, a breed she chose for its good fit in her pasture-based system. Native to the harsh environment of Iceland, these sheep are extremely hardy and grow well on grass. They also have short tails.

Icelandic sheep also are known for their delicious meat and exceptional wool. They actually have two coats, a coarse outer one with a superior ability to shed rain and snow, and a very fine, soft undercoat that used to be prized for undergarments.

One of the challenges of raising sheep on pasture comes from internal worms that can sicken and even kill them. But Phillips has been reluctant to use veterinary drugs to kill the worms.

“There’s a big environmental cost to using chemical wormers,” she said. “They kill dung beetles and all kinds of other things. Also, repeated use of wormers causes parasites to develop resistance. So when you really need a wormer, it’s not effective.”

So Phillips employs other strategies to protect her sheep. In a typical year, she said, she only has to worm about 5 percent of her sheep.

Another way she manages parasitic worms is by seeding plants, such as chicory, that are high in condensed tannins, compounds found to reduce worms in sheep.

Eight years ago, Phillips added Red Devon cattle to her farm with the express purpose of breaking the worm cycle. The two types of livestock play host to different worm species. By grazing cattle after sheep in her pastures, she aimed to significantly reduce the worm load.

This year, however, she’ll be selling the small herd of cattle because she hasn't been able to make them profitable. Not needing to give pasture to the cattle should also allow her to extend the grazing season for her sheep by another month.

“I would like to not feed hay until January,” Phillips said.

As a farmer, Phillips said she is seeing the effects of global warming and climate change. Like crop farms, grazing farms are vulnerable to drought and extended spells of hot weather like those this summer.

Without enough moisture, grass and clover stop growing and even die, and the hay crop diminishes. Animals become stressed and eat less.

“This is going to become the new normal for us,” Phillips said. “We’ll need to adapt our systems.”

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