Weather records kept on the farm are fairly casual. A semi-frequent journal entry documenting temperature or precipitation is about the best I manage. Those entries are usually prompted by one extreme or another: “too hot” or “too cold.” “Just right” seldom warrants an observation. Thankfully, other, more consistent individuals keep closer watch.
The local weather keeper for Philadelphia, Tennessee, about 15 miles away, has so far recorded .15 inches for the month of May. My casual recordkeeping indicates closer to a half-inch. The average for the area for the month closes in on five inches.
How rain falls and how it is used is place based. How each farm uses the rain affects the productivity of the garden, the lives of the livestock, and the setting of the table. For maintaining an abundant garden, my preference is the slightly dry summer, as long as we have ample alternative sources to water the veggies, and our fairly extensive rain harvesting system meets that need in all but the most exceptional droughts.
But pastures need rain to be productive for a small livestock farm. Ample forage now for everyday needs and stored forage in the form of hay for the winter are essential. And both are at the mercy of the weather.
The frequency of our rotational grazing system for the sheep currently outpaces the slow growth of the forage: a typical week’s worth of grass is now being consumed in three short days, leaving us scanning the western ridge lines for the approach of rain.
Unless we get ample rain in the next couple of weeks, we will need to reevaluate the carrying capacity of our pastures. This decision will not affect our small cattle herd, for they are on fields ample enough to support their numbers. The grazing options of our sheep, because they require special predator-proof fencing, are much more limited.
So as it stands now, we will cull more sheep than we had previously intended, perhaps reducing the flock by a third, from around 45 to 25 or 30. We cull for a variety of reasons besides grass availability: age, susceptibility to parasites, poor mothering, problems lambing, or because a particular sheep is a simple pain in the ass. Ideally, we would market the ewes as mutton. Direct marketing allows us to get a better price than through the stock auction and rest more comfortably knowing the future of the selected animal.
Mutton has, however, been out of favor in this country for a number of years. Which is a shame. The meat has a mature flavor for a mature taste. It is the taste of a food tradition of place-based eating, a culinary table set with the dishes rooted in necessity and seasonal availability–two traits out of step with our collective national taste, that of a 12-year-old for whom tenderness and immediacy are prized over flavor and quality.
I used to joke that it took 24 months to make my chicken and sausage gumbo. Because it did take two full years to raise out the rooster for the pot. In the meantime, the old boy had plenty of time to be useful to the hens. That utility is the hallmark of the small farm: everything has a place in the overall productivity.
Which is why we continue to try and market the mutton each summer. And not just out of a necessity brought on by a lack of rain. It is the natural ebb and flow of the farmer, farm, and flock–the necessity of an annual cull creates availability of a unique meat for a local cuisine.
But these efforts remain unsuccessful because, although the buying habits of the consumer have changed, they are still predicated on buying for convenience. And as long as the small farm has to compete with corporate farming over convenience, the small farm (and the consumer) will lose. A truly sustainable farm needs a sustainable food tradition with which to partner, combining geography and a people.
In a truly local food system, it is the culture that adapts to the foods’ seasonal availability. The annual coq au vin made from the culled rooster in the fall, the slow-cooked leg of mutton from the culled ewe at the height of summer, both are simmered in a sauce made of freshly grown vegetables, herbs, and garlic. Both meals are place based, with a personal relationship with the farmer, pasture, and garden and seasoned by the utility of the ingredients.
It is this place-based cooking tradition that has the potential to nourish our lives, build resilient communities, and sustain the planet. It’s a local table that speaks about the people of that place, a people who today are scanning the ridge lines for a storm’s approach.