By Serena Kenna (Recycled from October/November 2014, Edition 8)
Photos: Courtesy of Sten Robert Wilson and Caraleigh Gillespie Wilson
Sten and his wife, Caraleigh, are shepherds who own and operate Point of View Farm in Bangall, New York. They are annual vendors at the Sheep and Wool Festival which takes place in October at the Rhinebeck fairgrounds. It was a privilege to talk with Sten and learn all about their farm and sheep.
SK: Thank you, Sten, for taking the time to help our readers understand the current dynamics of shepherding in the Hudson Valley. Please give me a brief introduction as to how you came to be shepherds in New York.
SW: We began as successful horse breeders expanding farm operations to include breeding and selling Heritage Finnsheep. With our livestock experience and Caraleigh having had a history in fiber arts, it was a perfect fit to raise sheep. We moved to New York, bought our property, and began adding sheep to our horse farm. We are up to roughly 135 sheep on our 60 acres of land.
SK: What is fascinating about that story, Sten, is that if people would simply live their lives that way as a matter of course, meaning natural, healthy, and chemical free, imagine all of the illnesses and allergies we could eliminate, not to mention obesity. Please tell me what type of sheep you farm and how you decided on a particular breed.
SW: After much research on the topic, we chose Heritage Finnsheep. It is a superior breed in that they have a tendency toward multiple births, can be bred at a young age, and their offspring are quite hardy. Finnsheep are a great choice for many reasons: They are short-tailed, which is a hygienic benefit; they have no horns, which is a safety benefit for us; and they are basically docile and have a wonderful personality. They actually bond with people, like domestic pets. Finnsheep carry less lanolin, or fat, than most other breeds, which creates less marbling and makes for a sweet, tender meat product, and a soft, silky feel to their wool. Our hand spinners love Finnsheep wool, as it is much easier to work with. And of course, as I mentioned, Finnsheep are very prolific, giving birth to anywhere between one and seven lambs at a time.
SK: That’s incredibly interesting; I never would have guessed that there could be such differences between breeds. Please tell me how things are on the farm during lambing season.
SW: Because Finnsheep are so prolific, each spring we get about a hundred lambs. Although Finnsheep are fairly self-sufficient regarding the birthing process, we keep cameras in the barn and we do not leave the farm until all the pregnant ewes give birth; normally that takes between two and four weeks. Because we monitor them closely, we can tell within a three- or four-day window when they will give birth. We need to be available in case they need help, and because they usually give birth to more than one lamb, we have to make sure each lamb is getting the proper warmth, milk and attention to survive. Once the lambs are born, we put the ewe and her lambs in a pen to feed and bond for a few days with plenty of pure water, grains and hay, so the ewes can get the protein and minerals they need to lactate properly. We are constantly cleaning the barnyard; it is essential to power wash the barn, change the water and add fresh hay daily for the health of the sheep, as it keeps disease and parasites at bay.
SK: Their babies must be adorable; I bet they look like little puffballs. What happens after their time in the nursing pen?
SW: As the property is protected and fenced, we let them out so the lambs can begin to graze. We are very careful about how far we let them go and how long they stay out, because although we don’t really have a serious predator problem here, there is always the chance that a coyote, wolf or bobcat could wander around and cause a potential threat.
SK: Please tell me, as a shepherd, how you need to prep your land in order to accommodate sheep.
SW: Initially we must excavate trees, stumps and large rocks. Then the land is tilled to remove smaller rocks, and the soil must be tested for pH levels and composition. We use no chemicals or commercial fertilizers in our soil. When necessary, we add only organic matter and then seed it, and the grass grows very well. The land is permanently fenced in for the protection of the sheep against predators and so they do not wander off. Another plus to raising Finnsheep is that they enjoy a variety of greens; they will eat other plants growing around the fencing and tree leaves as well as their standard pasture-and-grain diet. Their eating habits make them very handy landscapers.
SK: What is it like to be a sheep on your farm?
SW: Our flock receives the best care possible. We give 110 percent and do our very best to raise the highest quality product. Each sheep gets individual attention, and they truly enjoy their lives here. We constantly monitor them for the earliest sign of a problem so that we can address it at once and avoid the need for any medication. In the rare instance where a sheep gets so sick as to require any medication, that sheep is treated but then not sold for human consumption. They are treated to the best chemical- and GMO-free organic feed and hay, pure water, rich pasture and the best drug-free medical care available. Every day on our farm is a great day for the sheep, and their last day is a very difficult day for all of us, but even then we only use the most humane procedures that cause the least amount of stress to the sheep.
SK: That’s very good to know. It is so important that people know that they have options and access to local, sustainable, chemical-free products, and that they are not restricted to the government-subsidized, factory-farmed goods that are carried in the major food chains. With this column, you have an opportunity to get a message out to our readers; what would you like to say?
SW: First, I would like to express my gratitude to all the businesses and individuals who recognize the importance of sustainable agriculture and that it is an essential component to an economically and physically healthy community. Our health is a direct result of our food and lifestyle choices, and our mission in raising and producing top-quality products is to make people feel better about how they live. They can see that providing their families with top-quality meat, produce, fabric and dairy products is the key to healthy living and longevity. The subsidizing of large factory farming and fast-food chains keeps the demand and price level for sustainable products out of reach for the average consumer. We need to seriously reconsider farm subsidies in favor of market prices determined by actual supply and demand.
Thank you, Sten, for the opportunity to speak with you, and for sharing your experience and knowledge about being a shepherd with our readers. For more information, visit www.finsheep.net. █