Fall Flock Fire

At the end of September, 2022, the land was still green and lush here at EEC. The sheep were browsing happily on blackberries, hazel, reed canary grass, and more. It was peak growth across the landscape, flora and fauna ripe in preparation for harvest. We picked our apples and pears, picked hops, blackberries, and salal; fermented wine, froze gallons of future pie filling, and dehydrated future sweet winter snacks. Then, at the start of October, when the expected rains didn’t come, we set to culling animals quickly, to save pasture and manage limited hay ration for the coming winter. The back pasture is in its final grazing stage, and on October 17th, 2022, we’ll put the sheep in the barn for winter because of pasture shortage, and no rain. This is the second year in a row we’ve had drought caused pasture rest. We’re not letting the landscape turn to moon dust, as many livestock systems often do at this time of year. Grasslands are most vulnerable in drought, as the roots are weak, and grass grazed down to the root will cause the entire plant to fail.

Overgrazing is common in pasture systems with too many animals, but it’s also caused by not adapting to the seasonal extremes now challenging western Washington, temperate rainforest farmers. Where three years ago, in a good mild summer after excellent winter rains, Leafhopper Farm produced 17 lambs and supported 23 sheep. It was a boom year, but by the end of next summer, 2021, the ewes were in the barn with hay at the end of September, and the cost for hay this winter, compels the shrinking of the herd back down to only 8 animals. We can pivot like this to stay within the limitations of our landscape, but many other animal operations do not adapt numbers to suit the environment, they overtax the environment to suit their financial ambitions, or obligations, and do not follow the imperative limitations of finite natural resources.

Leafhopper Farm has honored it’s lambing contracts for 2022, but has stopped taking deposits for 2023. We’ll still be selling lamb next year, but by invitation only, due to supply limitations dictated by the weather. The Cascade Katahdins remain adaptable and healthy, thriving on a rich mixture of vegetation in the lush times, and browsing what they can from blackberry bramble one the grass dries up. As the shepherd, I make the calls on when these animals come off the pasture, to save the soil and plants. Once rain returns, in gushing torrents more and more in past years, we’ll see flooding, and loos soil on hillsides washes away in heavy rain. This is why it’s so important to leave some protection on exposed pastureland. EEC Forest Stewardship builds up thatch in the fields, and rotates livestock off the grasses before they are grazed down to the root. We adapt these management choices to the needs of the land, not our own assumed profits. This keeps the financial strain on the farm light, and our risks low.

In future, Leafhopper Farm may look very different, without affordable inputs, the sheep system would shrink to a few animals for farm consumption, and our food production focus would shift towards meal worm operations. We would retain some sheep for browsing and grazing, but plant out the back pasture into food forest. We’d start the transition of our middle pasture into food forest with more earthworks prep and mulching. The flock would stay at 3-4 animals, and we might fold a couple of goats back in to help with browsing efforts in the field. Chickens remain a key staple in our restoration agriculture endeavors, producing a lot of good soil turnover, fertile poop, and much needed insect pest management. They also offer eggs and meat at affordable input costs, though with careful planting design to favor grains, the land here could sustain them if we downsized the flock to about 10 birds. Knowing the sustainability of scale within the landscape is key to holistic farming. Environmental change demands fast adaptation in scale, often asking us to rest the land, especially during climate extremes.

It is mid October, 2022. There is a 1,200 acre forest fire in its second day about 15 miles from us. The air has been thick with bitter ash for weeks on end, and I’m inside today as much as possible, with air quality being extremely bad. Living in NYC was not as bad, but close, and all the time, where as with rains on the way, we should have a fresh breath by next weekend. The start of fall has been dry and warm, with temperatures in the 80s last weekend, shattering heat records by almost 20 degrees. Many trees and shrubs stand in brown, crisp, drought stricken shock. This carpet of grey flakes, like a death shroud, finalizes a costume macabre. At least it’s the right time of year in spirit.

Death of one gives rebirth to another, and I can hear morels shuttering at the thought of recently burned forest floor. The ash falling here might encourage mycological unicorns from the soil in coming years. The rains will wash much of it through the soil and into silt at the bottom of Seattle Sound. Hopefully, our swale systems slow and retain some of that microscopic fertility. It’s going to be like this more and more often where we live in Western Washington. Fire is an old friend to this region, ask any old growth Douglas Fir, if you can find one. It will most likely carry scorch marks at its base from past forest infernos. Droughts will continue, and oaks should be planted in place of cedar and hemlock. We’re looking more and more like southern California every year.

It makes we wonder at keeping animals in it, as our flock is breathing that outside air right now and baring it, as there’s not alternative options at the moment, and the back pasture is still plentiful. Grazing is the priority, and maybe there’s a little mineral flavor, like pepper, in the field. We’re also aware that emergency evacuation plans might need to activate, should winds pick up before coming storms. Rain will ultimately quench the fire’s thirst, but there’s a lot of crispy acreage between then and now. Our flock is small enough, both birds and sheep, to pack into the truck and tied in kennels atop my partner’s sedan. We’ll be able to relocate all our stock in the event of catastrophic evacuation, but we’re not packing up now, and don’t see a need to given the forecast, and King County fire protection. It’s a well funded civil service in our region, with good reason.

There are a couple of major river systems between us and the blaze, we’re in the smoke, which is never fun, but we’re not under burn threat. The map below shows the rough distance between us and the fire, we’re north of Carnation. Note all the ridges and water features across this map, all hindrances to fire spreading rapidly. Vigilance is important, but panic is unnecessary. The sheep are chill, chickens are foraging, cats are napping, and dogs are laying low to avoid unwanted exhale in the bad air. We’ve all taken the cue. Hunting is certainly curtailed, though I’ve got everything ready and will sit mornings and evenings here on the land. The fire is in the tree farm where I hunt, which is closed as long as the fire burns. Maybe the wildlife will come this way while avoiding the smoke and cinders? Either way, the habitat destruction will not be good for this year’s herds.

Domestic stock like our Cascade Katahdins, get a good meal in every day, regardless of smoke or fire. That’s the pay off of raising animals in captivity, but it must still remain adaptable to survive. Our ewes that put on the best pasture weight, have twins, and remain easy to handle, are a top priority in herd selection, and those traits remain constant, no matter the change in climate. Superficial traits like color, tail length, and coat condition are unimportant, though if I’m splitting hairs, the less wool in a coat, the better. This relates to flavor and what the body of a sheep puts it’s growing energy into- wool or meat. Lanolin, found in wool sheep, effects taste. Hair sheep have far less lanolin, remaining light in flavor, avoiding that mutton taste often found in adult sheep. Wool production also takes away from meat production in an animal’s body. Meat sheep should be growing a healthy frame of future food, and for Katahdin, that should happen on a diet of vegetation, without grain supplements.

Leafhopper Farm Cascade Katahdins will continue to thrive at EEC, and lessons of holistic land restoration abounds. Sheep add fertility in grazing cycles of manure and vegetation harvest. That natural input is more important to this land vision, than meat production. It’s why we are not registering our flock. We do sell breeding stock for small farmstead and homestead systems, and will focus on producing more sheep to other shepherds in our area as needed, but maintaining a commercial lambing system in current input price inflation has moved to the back burner. It’s another great example of adaptation in these fast changing times. We won’t burn the land with overgrazing, and keep a close eye on the fires at hand.

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