Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sheep dog days

Last weekend we skipped selling lamb and beef at the farmer's market in order to attend a day of border collie school with Ellen Skillings, a skilled trainer. Border collies are energy filled, work oriented dogs. They have been bred over the past several hundred years to subdue their wolf-ancestors kill instinct and to gather flocks of sheep towards their handler (called fetching); most other breeds of dogs will drive flocks away.

Border collies control sheep with what is called "eye;" essentially an intimidating stare straight at the animal as well as a lowered stance - a dog with a strong eye can get stock turned around and moving without any other force. If the eye isn’t working on a particularly stubborn sheep, the dog will escalate its use of force by nipping at the sheep's heels and a confident dog will “grip” the sheep, giving it a bit on its nose to get it moving. It takes a lot more confidence to grip a sheep head on, rather than go for an easy bite on the flank!

The leisurely life of a BC pup

Border collie puppies aren't necessarily very interested in stock - as they get older most will "turn on" to stock and enjoy chasing, scattering and herding animals with out any direction from their handler. This is the point that training really starts, in short sessions once or twice a day. They will eventually learn commands like "come by" (go left to fetch the sheep),  "away" or "away to me" (go right to fetch the sheep), "walk on" (move slowly straight ahead) and "lie down" (meaning stop right there).

Because of their intelligence, great desire to work and extremely high energy levels, border collies do not make good pets for people who aren’t willing to spend several hours a day physically and mentally challenging them. Border collies do make great partners for shepherds, farmers and dog trainers who have stimulating work for the dogs to do. From watching and listening during the training, it is easy to see that there is a trusting relationship that handlers must build with their dog. Once that relationship is established on both sides, I think a better buddy, partner or employee would be hard to find.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fall in the Foothills

Between preparing to leave for my internship on a goat dairy, working a desk job, interning on a farm Saturdays, planning my wedding and making and eating desserts, I find myself falling a little behind on my posts. But this one is still timely...

With the popularity of snapping photos of children wading through fields of fleshy orange orbs, sampling apple cider and spending a crisp fall day on a farm, pumpkin patches around Sacramento have become increasingly urbanized and crowded. While visiting Apple Hill and Bishop's Pumpkin Farm since I was a little girl have provided many happy memories, this year a friend told me about a place I suspected would not have hour long lines of traffic for parking spots a half mile from the farm; a family farm and kitchen in Chicago Park called Bierwagens and the Happy Apple Kitchen.

The Bierwagen family has farmed on this same land since 1902. The farm is cute with festive displays; there are sandboxes filled with hard, yellow corn kernels and little tractors, hay bales to climb on, chickens to cluck at and a pygmy goat that will let you scratch its head and giggle at it. There is also a little museum with family heirlooms and farm equipment on display that is worth a look. They sell fresh cider, plums, pies, caramel apples, tri-tip sandwiches and of course pumpkins of all sizes, shapes and colors.

And one amazing old tree
If you are looking to start a new family tradition or just do something off the well beaten path, the Bierwagen's farm is well worth the trip into the festively decorated foliage of the foothills.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

From field to fork... to fork...pasture to matter how it is dressed up with attractive alliterations, eating meat involves the demise of what is being eaten. It happens all the time, breakfast, lunch and dinner, in the animal kingdom, in the human realm. That most of us are completely removed from any experience of what life and death is like for the meat we eat speaks to the reason we have massive monoculture factory farms in this country. If we knew the whole story of each item of food on our plates, I believe we would make more sustainable, health supporting choices.

Three weeks ago my fiance, Matt, joined Dan (the sheep herder I intern for) and myself on a work day sorting lambs. Matt purchased a market lamb back in May. A market lamb is a sheep that is younger than one year old, generally a castrated male. It could also be a female whose genetics a farmer doesn't want contributing to their future flock. A market lamb is also by definition destined for the dinner table. By late September Matt's lamb weighed 90lbs and was 'finished.' Finish is the amount of fat cover on the animal and is decided most easily by feeling the loin area on each lamb.

We sorted all the lambs; those under 90lbs got to go back out to pasture. Those over 90lbs were loaded in the trailer and taken to the nearest lamb processing facility about 55 miles away in Dixon.

The next week, we picked up our meat, a freezer full and seasons worth of roasts, racks and chops.

It might be crass to show these pictures. But in this case, the truth is a bit crass. The transition of living animal to "meat" is a reality many eaters shy away from. My point is, I know my dinner's story, from when and where it was born, to where it grazed and lived, to where it eventually met its end. I know it had a pleasant life in a sun soaked pasture, plenty to eat and drink and was well cared for. It is also one of the most local and sustainable options I could choose for my dinner. The purchase of this meat will hopefully help a small-scale, local farmer stay in the business of feeding his community.

I realize not everyone cares to be this involved in the preparation of their dinner but I hope you care enough about what you eat to find out where your food is coming from...check out a co-op, visit a farmer's market, join a CSA and ask some questions!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Celebrating the change of season - Celtic style

For the second time in as many weeks, we chugged up the Northern California foothills to the woodsy Nevada County Fairgrounds. This time - less equine gentility...more medieval debauchery!

It was the 15th Annual KMVR Celtic Festival and the debauchery was actually pretty minimal (sorry to disappoint). But there was plenty music, full medieval costumes (heaving bosoms and all), period games, sheep dog demos and lots of interesting food. Here's a sample of the sensory stimulating day...

Tempting to spend a small fortune on authentic garb
Unique hats, elf ears, kilts and capes aplenty
The spinners guild - turning wool and roving into yarn!
Music was one of the main attractions of the weekend, with three or four stages going simultaneously.
Whiskey and Stitches
Pirate ship with startling cannon demonstrations
Claude the fire-breathing dragon 
Hand made spoons
Stone engraving
The ultimate contest of grunting manliness - the caber toss
Dan the sheep-herder and Taff doing a herding demo
Sheep-herders pie - I need to learn how to make these!
All in all a pretty good way to usher in the California fall - in a Celtic kind of way!