Taking pride in knowing where our food comes from
There is a saying that goes, “In a ham and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.”
For three years sheep have grazed on Colby Farm. The original inspiration for bringing sheep to the farm was the waist-high tangle of grass in the orchard hiding downed limbs, lost hoses and other surprises that will trip you up. We needed grazers.
Two summers ago we “borrowed” four ewes from a rancher who runs thousands of sheep in the area. We taught them to fear the white tape that carries an electric charge, then cordoned off areas of the farm with a double strand. For a time, they enjoyed a peaceful life, trimming the deep mat of alfalfa and various grasses, or “shading up” on hot summer days under the spreading limbs of an apple tree.
One morning in July Eldon called from next door. A bear had clambered over a short section of fence behind the barn with no electric charge and torn the leg off one of the sheep. The bruin left a calling card of seedy, fruity scat. The other three sheep huddled and trembled in the opposite corner, as far as they could get from the tragedy. They refused to move until we could build a new fence to relocate them.
A few weeks later, those ewes broke out when a gate was left dangling open for a few minutes. They spent the rest of the summer roaming the Grand Hogback, pursued by predators. Every so often a neighbor would report a sheep sighting; we’d call the rancher and assemble a posse, but by then they were wily, crafty beasts, and they’d give us the slip. Eventually, exhausted by the struggle to survive, two sheep somehow managed to cross I-70 and gave themselves up by jumping into a neighbor’s coral.
We stopped getting word of the third, lone sheep, and she was never seen again. For months, Ed teased me now and again by pointing off into the distance and yelling “SHEEP!”
After that adventure, the rancher was as reluctant to “lend” us more sheep as we were to ask him to. There had to be an easier way.
Last summer he sold us four “bum lambs.” These are the lambs that for one reason or another can’t or won’t nurse. We learned to bottle feed all four at the same time by taping two bottles together filled with a powdered milk formula. They grew as tame as the other sheep were wild.
Inevitably, summer came to an end. The little lambs grew big and woolly, snow covered the ground, and feeding them became a chore and an expense. I worried about them on cold nights.
I once happened onto a satellite radio talk show that featured a couple who raised a pig much like a pet, then had it slaughtered and wrote a book about the experience, including recipes. Listeners called in not asking for cooking tips, but to express outrage and disgust. I was shocked, too — at how blissfully, even self-righteously, ignorant we have become about where our food comes from. Were these callers intimate with the plight of the factory-farm animals on their dinner plates?
Ed was vacillating, but my mind was made up. We found a local butcher who would do the deed here on the farm. Then I left town, believing my tough guy would be unfazed. I bade the darling lambs goodbye, and as I drove to Denver under a brilliant full moon, my thoughts strayed sentimentally to them spending their last night in the orchard.
The slaughter didn’t go perfectly. A gun misfired, eyes rolled in terror, a wounded lamb ran for it. Afterward, Ed was preoccupied and melancholy. To console him I said, truthfully, “Ed, those sheep had a great life, and one bad day.”
I promised myself I would stick around the next time, if only to make sure things didn’t get too cowboy.
When I saw those lambs again, they were vacuum-packed and frozen solid as loin chops, ribs and lamburger. Friends bought three of them and raved about the flavor and quality of the meat. Like me, they took pride in knowing where and how it was raised.
Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the PI’s Good Taste pages.
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