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“Slow food” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

It’s been a while since “slow food” was the food buzzword. Buzzphrase? Anyway. These days we’re all “locavores” but I found myself contemplating the slowness of food recently as I looked around my tiny farm.

Nothing really happens quickly in the agricultural world. Things move not in the scale of days, but months and seasons and years. For instance, I planted one small test plot of einkorn wheat this fall. I’ll plant another in January or February, depending on what the weather is doing, and the last one in mid-March most likely. The test plots will tell me the fastest way to get wheat (I’m betting on the fall plot) and all of this year’s harvest will bee conserved for seed. In 2017, we may actually have enough excess for us to use some of it, but not before. There’s also oats and rye (planted in spring) and sorghum (planted in summer) to experiment with in my endless quest to find out how much of our livestock’s food we can grow. Sorghum isn’t a usual grain addition to livestock feed, but evidence suggests goats find it extremely palatable, given that several of them went over a fence and ate the grain heads the last time I grew it.

The pregnant onions also probably won’t provide a lot of food this year, although hopefully I’ll have extras to share for seed onions. Permaculture beds generally take at least a year to get established, so it won’t be until next fall that we dig some onions for eating. Meanwhile I’m nibbling the tips of the greens periodically, and they are amazing: sweet, spicy, and complex. This is a variety traditionally grown in the south in the days before it was easy to order new onion seed every spring. Our ancestors knew deliciousness no grocery store can provide!

Bunchy onion tops, each one a small explosion of green pointy tubular leaves, ranging from 3 to 6 inches tall, growing in an otherwise empty bed with a few dead oak leaves.
Grow, delicious little onions! Grow!

Garlic is the fall-planted fast food of our garden this year, ready to eat in summer. Mainly this is a function of the fact that I still haven’t figured out exactly when collard greens and kale like to be planted for fall harvest. By the time I got them in the ground the conditions were already off for germination and the days too short for the few that germinated to grow. We do however have pea vines to nibble. The humble pea is a wonder, it wilts a bit in the heart of summer but otherwise is a mainstay of the garden, giving us edible greens, young pods, and of course the delicious globes of ripe peas. It’s another fast food, shooting up in weeks and flowering in just a month or two in the spring.

On the meat side of things, the fastest food we have is rabbit. Since beloved friends have hooked me up with meaty beasts, I only have to wait 28 days of gestation and then another 8 weeks of growing before I can have rabbit pot pie. Cornish Rock broiler chickens could match that speed, but I’m morally opposed to raising birds who have to be slaughtered before they’re adults because otherwise their bodies will overwhelm their joints and circulatory systems. Heritage breed birds generally need to go 4-6 months before they’re a decent size to eat.

Provided Ferrington has been able to settle my two non-Soay ewes without a step ladder, there will be lamb next year, after nearly a year’s wait. Sheep have a five month gestation period and need to be five months old or more before they’re of a size to make slaughter worthwhile. Slow food, indeed. Pigs average out about the same, with a roughly three month gestation followed by a longer grow out, although I short-circuited that by getting eating pigs who were already 8 weeks old. I’m hoping they’ll be of a size to go for slaughter in early spring.

All these wait times apply not only to people like me, of course. When you pick up a package of pork chops at the grocery store, the same months-long wait is behind it. The same goes for your bag of flour. Most of us are just totally divorced from this process of waiting that I either find peaceful or tedious depending on the day. Right now I would really like some rabbit, and the twelve weeks between putting a buck and doe in together and getting my rabbit pie seems ungodly long.

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Shepherd’s Calendar

“We are as gods to beasts of the field. We order the time of their birth and the time of their death. Between times, we have a duty.” — Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

It’s time to start building lambing jugs, which despite the name are not actually jugs. They’re small pens, in which a ewe gives birth and is confined for a few days with her new lambs, so that they’ll bond and the shepherd can monitor them all to make sure both mother and lambs are healthy. I don’t really expect the Soays to need them, you don’t survive for a couple thousand years on a tiny rock in the North Sea, the farthest west of any of the Outer Hebrides, because you have a tendency to forget you gave birth and wander off without your lamb. But there’s Ella the American Blackbelly sheep and Mabel the Southdown ewe, both of which are more modern breeds that may require some assistance in remembering that yes, this small bleating woolly thing belongs to them and requires their care.

A small rocky island formed from the tip of an ancient mountain rises from the North Sea. Its sides are steep and its top is wreathed in mist. There's a carpet of grass, but no shelter to be seen.
Inselsoay” by Olaf1950Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The Soay Island that Soay sheep come from. When you were bred to survive a rock in the North Sea, Virginia weather is laughably mild and you tend to remember that you gave birth.

Lambs should start arriving in February, if Ferrington has done his job. I was slightly worried at first that he was incapable, since I’m used to goats and let me tell you, male goats make sure you know that they have a penis and like to use it. More experienced shepherds have reassured me that rams are much shyer creatures, preferring to woo the ladies at night when no inquisitive shepherd is around to watch. Unlike goat bucks, rams also don’t pee all over their own faces to make themselves attractive to the ladies, and in the absence of another ram with whom to have junk-measuring contests, you may never actually see a ram’s reproductive apparatus beyond his enormous, dangling testicles. The more you know.

But I digress. The lambing jugs will be built in the barn, so that ewes and lambs are sheltered from the occasional winter storm. Adult sheep are extremely weather resistant and the Soays honestly barely seem to notice rain unless it’s absurdly heavy, but lambs are small and their surface area to volume ratio is much more conducive to hypothermia than it is for adult sheep, even with their woolly fleeces to keep them warm. While some shepherds with breeds and flocks selected for being excellent mothers choose to let ewes lamb in the fields, I’m more conservative, especially since this is the first time for both me and the ewes. I’ve handled goat births no problem, but sheep are startlingly different animals for all that they and goats are nearly indistinguishable skeletally. And I have a duty.

Every sheep is more than a sheep; it is all the sheep it has ever been, and everything we have done to them, and everything they have done for us. — Elodie Under Glass

After lambing, round about April or so, comes rooing the hair sheep and shearing the wool sheep. Rooing a sheep means simply to round it up and pluck the shedding wool from it so that humans can use the wool, rather than leaving the sheep to scratch the wool off on trees and the barn. In the days when Soay sheep were the cutting edge of farming, rooing would have been a social affair: the sheep would have been rounded up in their winter pastures and brought down to pens near villages, and everyone would get together and have a fine time plucking sheep. At the end, the newly naked-er sheep would have been taken to their spring pastures, and village life would have moved on to planting.

Rooing is surprisingly hard work, mostly because you have to catch the sheep and set it on its butt (which causes sheep to relax and go immobile) and then pluck, and pluck, and pluck, pausing to stash your precious handfulls of wool in sacks. Do it too early and you’ll be doing it all over again later, do it too late and you’ll be scavenging wool from tree branches, fence posts, and the sides of your barn and hay feeder. Shearing is much more convenient, at least for the shepherd, because timing isn’t so very important. Gather up the sheep, shave them bald, and call it good and move on to processing the fleece. When you need privacy fencing, you can go to https://www.longfence.com/residential/fence/privacy-fence for more details.

Damp weather shows off crimp and increasing length of beautiful red-brown Soay fleece.
At least the Soays are small, so rooing them will be much faster than Ella and Tyson.

Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends. — Marcus Tullius Cicero

In summer the spring lambs are reaching the age where they’re old enough to be sold. Sometime in June, Ferrington’s sons will hopefully head off to spread their genetics into new herds of Soays, preserving the gift of DNA that ancient shepherds left for us on the small rocky island in the North Sea. Ferrington himself will also be seeking a new herd, as his daughters will remain here to build my own little flock of Soays. I’ll exchange him for a ram as unrelated to my ewes as I can manage to find. The Soay cross lambs from Mabel and Ella, on the other hand, will stay here and get fat on pasture and hay. In summer one or two of them will probably be slaughtered for the table and to keep the load on our pastures low. The rest will eat, and may be offered to one or two shepherds who want to experiment with adding Soay blood to their flocks. Honestly, it depends on whether I need cash or meat more.

And then a few months later, at the start of fall, the remaining extraneous lambs (including any of Ferrington’s sons that didn’t head for new homes) will go to slaughter, as we pare down the flock to only the animals we want to support over the winter. Hay costs double with cold weather and a lack of pasture, so it’s important to keep flock size to something supportable. And thanks to the growing demand for local food, there’s good odds that I can manage to sell some of the meat provided I can afford to use a USDA inspected slaughter-house.

Meanwhile, the young ewes will be separated so that they don’t get pregnant too young, the older ewes will begin cycling and growing in their wool, and the entire calendar swings back to the beginning, with the exception of lambing jugs already being built.

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Capitalism still sucks. News at 11.

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant the other day about an article on veteran farmers. The two farmers featured in the piece were both officers, and that’s no mistake. The vast majority of programs that provide grants and low/no interest loans to help out veteran farmers are for people who already own land, but at unsecuredloans4u you can get a loan with no credit without owning lawn. Land takes money, and officers are in a much better position to be able to get a loan or lay out the cash for enough land to farm than enlisted people. This means that huge numbers of veterans who want to farm are unable to access programs simply because they don’t have the land to get started. Encroaching urbanization in many areas is driving up the price of an acre of fertile land to put farms out of reach of a generation of folks who would love nothing better than to be part of our nation’s agricultural web.

The division between enlisted and officers starts early. While someone who has just joined the military as an enlisted person might get one class on financial management skills and avoiding predatory lenders, a new officer is offered a low-interest car loan. It’s all very well and good to tell young enlisted people to stay away from shitty lenders, but they aren’t offered guaranteed access to good lenders, while a million exploitative used car lots and payday lenders spring up at the gates of every base. Financial management is a learned skill, and as enlisted folks are increasingly drawn from impoverished communities they haven’t had a chance to learn those skills and the military doesn’t help. Between low pay that qualifies some families for food stamps and the lack of financial literacy classes, some enlisted people come out of the military with credit worse than if they’d never gone in.

Homelessness and unemployment are also perennial problems among the veteran population, largely among former enlisted. An officer has a college degree and experience in managing people and systems. But how does someone who spent four years shooting people for a living translate that into skills that the private sector can understand, let alone finds desirable? We lure young people into the military with a promise that they’ll have job skills when they get out and the ability to pursue a college education, but offer them no help in pursuing either one of these things. If you can’t navigate the bureaucracy of your local college or university’s admissions office and office of veterans services, you’re going to be shit out of luck.

Offering enlisted folks a chance to buy a farm, whether they find more loans or grants, plus mentorship and guidance to get them established, would offer so much to both veterans and to the country. Our nation’s farmers are aging and family farms are increasingly being replaced by large corporate endeavors. It is not in the country’s interest to have a few large multinational corporations take over the agricultural landscape entirely (they already dominate it) and it is not in the country’s interest to waste the talents of veterans. Yet we seem willing to do both, by excluding veterans who can’t come up with the initial capital to buy a $500,000 piece of property. By the way, trusted agents are available at www.buyinghousesnashville.com if you’re planning to sell house fast without much paperwork.

It’s time to actually put our money where our mouths are as a nation here in the US. We say we want family farms and diverse agriculture, but we reserve subsidies for giant monocropping operations growing corn and soybeans and let talented veteran farmers interested in diverse, sustainable agriculture fall by the wayside. We let farms be sold to developers and build subdivisions where the only thing their fertile topsoils grow are very nice lawns while simultaneously espousing an “eat local” philosophy. Our actions and our words are not compatible, and it’s time to insist that the government back us up with policies designed to support veterans, diverse agriculture, and farms not lawns.

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Boom and bust cycles, or buy pigs now!

At least if you’re in Virginia between DC a and the south reaches of Richmond, from the mountains out to Fredericksburg, pork on the hoof is cheap as hell right now.

In fact, as the annual rush to secure winter hay supplies begins and the spring/summer breeding cycles come to an end, everything from pigeons to horses can be had at dirt cheap prices if not free. People often get lost in the optimism of lush summer pastures and the lure of higher livestock prices, only to discover that a horse eats a lot of hay, piglets are no longer selling for $150 each, and pigeons multiply like rodents given the opportunity. Looking to reduce feed bills they start dumping stock below cost, and the long plummet b of a market glut has begun.

Teacup pigs are a very striking example of the market cycle in my area right now, people are buying it from http://www.pamperedpiglets.com/. A year ago or more, a potbelly or American Guinea Hog piglet fetched around $150-$200 on the private market. Predictably, many people saw dollar signs and began pumping out litters of piglets, with the end result that starting late this summer some folks with young potbelly pigs were having trouble giving them away for free. Everyone in central Virginia who wanted a piglet had one, it seemed like. Prices are running from free to $50 each for potbelly pigs now, and $25-$75 for young American Guinea Hogs. These prices are well below the cost to raise a piglet to weaning age, leaving producers the prospect of either continuing to raise them to butcher age and then putting an entire litter in the freezer (who has that much freezer space??) or to take a loss just to get the animals off their property.

At least there’s Best Pet Reviews to sending AGH to slaughter. The potbelly pigs, while also made of delicious pork, have been sold as pets so long that many of them wind up in bad situations receiving substandard care because of the novelty value. Rescues work hard to take them in but space is limited. Arguably it’s kinder to put an animal down and eat it than to keep it living alone, belly-deep in water and feces, because as it turns out many of a pig’s natural behaviors (like rooting) aren’t compatible with the house pet life. And while pigs are as smart as dogs, they haven’t had the benefit of 30,000 years of selective breeding to be enjoyable companions.

Pigs, goats, and sheep sold for below slaughter value are likely to wind up in slaughter channels no matter how many caps locked “NOT FOR FOOD” warnings the seller puts in an ad. Around here, those channels start with people who trawl craigslist for cheap livestock. They run them to the auctions, where they’re either bought directly by a few small local slaughterhouses that don’t have contacts with enough supplies to buy directly, or by bunchers who then take them to the New Holland auction in Pennsylvania. An animal raised as a cherished and cuddled pet will suddenly find itself in a world of shouting and cattle prods. It’s tough even on animals not socialized to enjoy human company. Dealers expect an animal to lose up to 25% of its weight as a result of the stress even if treated well.

Horses have it much wise since horse slaughter has been effectively ended in the US, meaning they have a long miserable trip to Canada or Mexico awaiting them. There just isn’t a market for pasture pets and half-wild horses that haven’t been ridden in a year beyond slaughter when so many steady, useful horses are also on the market.

In the end it’s much, much kinder for an animal to get a dish of grain and a well placed bullet in familiar surroundings, or one trip to the slaughterhouse. Even more ideally, small producers will limit their breeding to ensure a smaller surplus come fall. The large farms that have made names for themselves aren’t the ones glutting the market, they’re the ones that line up buyers before breeding season even begins, or have built a customer base for themselves at Farmers Markets and in local butcher shops.

Breed to feed yourself and your friends and family. It is nearly impossible to make money in small livestock without access to the economies of scale a large producer has. It sucks, but that’s the market.

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Pregnant Onions, Grains, and Greens

Thanks to the kindness of my Patreon supporters and some folks who picked up seeds from my wishlist, fall planting is about to kick off.

Well, technically it already kicked off when I planted wheat that had grown from spilled chicken scratch, but then the black hen brought her clutch of babies out into the world and they’ve been industriously hunting every. Last. Seed. I planted back there. I don’t have the heart to run them off it with the hose since they’re such cute little puffballs, so I’m giving up for now. I also scattered some other forage seed on the grazing areas, including dormant alfalfa, forage rape, and some clovers to help fix nitrogen in the poor soil. I never go too heavy planting any one variety, since I prefer the goats and sheep to get a varied diet of weeds, grasses, brassicas, and legumes.

A glossy black hen, her feathers showing off their iridescent green sheen, kicks through waste hay alongside her eight tiny chicks -- five black, three yellow with brown stripes down their backs.
The black hen and her babies, hard at work destroying my tiny wheat field.

But I digress! I was talking about planting food for humans. I’ve ordered pregnant onions, a multiplier onion variety that doesn’t require me to plant from seed every year. Instead, you plant the small onions. They’ll grow up to be big onions and spawn more little onions. You can of course eat either big or little onions, as long as you’re mindful of leaving enough to make new onions.

I also ordered kale seeds, which should offer us fresh greens even through the winter, peas (They may not flower, in which case we’ll eat the tips of foliage and young leaves), and white einkorn wheat. Along with the beet and turnip seeds we already have, the garden will hopefully feed us more this fall and winter than it did this summer after the disastrous goat invasion.

A close-up of a the face of a brown goat with a white stripe down the middle of his face. He has a stick taped across his elegant black horns, and is peering up into the camera.
Frankie looks innocent, but was a cheerful participant in the destruction of our strawberry bed.

The einkorn wheat is almost as exciting as the multiplier onions. It was a staple of agriculture back when my Soay sheep were cutting edge wool growers. Compared to modern wheat it has less gluten and more protein. In fact, some folks who can’t tolerate modern wheat varieties can handle einkorn just fine. Einkorn is, however, apparently an absolute bugger to thresh, requiring vigorous flailing. I suspect either I’ll have a threshing party or we’ll end up leaving it in the hull and using it for feed. I’m all right with either eventuality. And I’m definitely planting it in the front garden, where it should remain unmolested, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise (and the goats and poultry don’t rebel).

I was going to pick up a mushroom spawn kit to establish in the straw mulch on the getting garden beds, but decided to splurge on a book instead. There’s always next month, the piedmont climate is quite kind and we have plenty of time before the cold kicks in.

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The magic of domestication

A friend of mine linked this article about the changes to various plant foods after domestication a couple days ago. I fund the ways we’ve selectively bred crops to be fascinating — particularly the way teosinte has made such utterly radical changes.

Our changes to animals have been large, but in the cases of livestock those changes haven’t been nearly as radical as what teosinte underwent, at least not physically. When we domesticate animals, the changes tend to be mostly mental: they have a much shorter flight distance and a much larger tolerance for novelty than their wild counterparts. Dogs, of course, are the canonical case of domestication that wrought large physiological changes but even larger mental ones. On the basis of pure physicality my German Shepherds are recognizable as cousins to the wolf; Zille even carries the agouti striping on each hair that gives wolves their camouflage. But mentally they are worlds away from their wild cousins, who would rather eat sheep than herd them and would never dream of being a service animal.

The bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus) is, if not the only ancestor of domesticated goats (Capra aegagrus hircus), then certainly the majority ancestor. Looking at it, it is recognizably a goat, and the “bezoar” color pattern of a lighter body with black markings on legs, belly, and face along with a black dorsal stripe persists in our friendly dairy goats.

Compare this bezoar ibex buck to lovable Sebastian:
A largish goat with freakin enormous black horns curving straight back. The animal has a grayish-brown body with black stripes over the shoulders and black markings on face, legs, and belly.
Image via Wikimedia commons.

A tall, sleek mahogany red goat buck. He has the same black markings as the ibex buck only slightly reduced. He also has flaring moderately sized black horns, pendulous ears speckled with white, a white nose, a white spot on top of his head, and pale spots scattered all over his body. Behind him is Terror, who is his mini-me and shows the juvenile version of the pattern, which involves having less black.
Sebastian shows off the adult bezoar pattern in domesticated goats while Terror shows off the juvenile version.

If I had Alpines instead of Nubian/Spanish crosses, the physical resemblance would be even more striking, since Alpines have retained the upright ears of most goat breeds. Physiologically and skeletally, however, the ancestors of domestic goats and my goats are indistinguishable aside from matters of size (and those magnificent horns!).

In chickens the wild type has been retained as a modern breed, referred to as “Jungle Fowl”, and game breeds originally bred for fighting adhere to it quite closely except in matters of color of tameness. Most domesticated breeds of chicken have had their ability to sit a nest and raise young bred out of them by the advent of incubators and brooders, something that’s been quite the problem for us in establishing a self-replacing free-range flock.

Sheep haven’t had the wild type preserved in domestication, not even by beloved Soays. Though they’re closer to the wild mouflon in size, appearance, and shedding than other breeds, they’re still recognizably touched by selective breeding. But they’re still closer visually and physiologically to their ancestors than teosinte and corn.

Indeed, we may have to go back to dogs and turn to the Chihuahua to find an animal that’s come as far from its ancestors as corn has. The plasticity of plant genomes appears to out-perform that of mammals at least in terms of non-lethal mutations useful to humans.

At any rate, the story of human-guided evolution remains fascinating. Unfortunately the wild equivalents of much of our livestock are in danger of disappearing (the aurochs is already gone). Without care and conservation, our grandchildren may no longer be able to look and see where goats came from.

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Sustainability part 5: human labor

Yesterday I talked about sustainability in the micro level and got into money. Today, let’s talk about another micro-level resource that’s seldom considered: human beings. You can Consolidate Debts here when you want to minimize your debt and earn savings.

As many of my readers know, I’m disabled by chronic pain and fatigue. This means I’m more focused than many on ways to conserve human effort, and if I’m brutally honest it’s at the heart of many of my sustainability efforts. For instance, I talked about conserving the genetics of disease- and parasite-resistant livestock. Not only does this mean I need to use fewer medical interventions, it means I’m spared having to wrestle a relatively large, extremely irate ruminant while I attempt to administer those medical interventions. Having free range poultry means no need to shovel out a chicken coop. Using no-till and biointensive growing methods for plant crops not only sustains and improves soil health and conserves water but also means that once a bed is established we never again have to engage in the heavy work of digging it over.

A guinea hen struts past the camera, head cocked.
Most tilling here is done by poultry, who will pick out and eat weed seeds and grubs while they do it.

Still, it’s unavoidable that some heavy labor is involved. Deep bedding the ruminant stall may mean I don’t have to dig it out weekly, but it still needs to be dug out. I’m lucky to have a group of friends who can be bribed with food and are willing to help with farm tasks from mucking out stalls to rounding up sheep and loading them in the car. Communal labor used to be a major part of agriculture, as neighbors gathered to shuck corn, build barns, shear sheep, boil down syrup from sorghum or maple sap, etc etc. Industrialization has indeed conserved human labor, but it’s also undoubtedly isolated farmers. Another sad knock on effect has been to isolate the vast majority of human beings from the sources of their food.

Agriculture must be healthy and sustaining for the human beings it serves. While there’s no going back to pre-industrial agriculture while still feeding everyone in industrialized nations, the choices we’ve made to produce that food have been questionable at times. We’ve reached a point where agriculture at the macro and micro levels can be dangerous to everyone it touches, from farm withers exposed to pesticides to consumers eating fish contaminated by bacteria from manure run off to the Chesapeake Bay with its dead spot fed in part by excess nitrogen run off from surrounding farms.

A crowd of goats and sheep chews their way into a stand of brush.
We certainly don’t need to do any bush hogging here.

Yet calls for more sustainable agriculture practice often fail to resonate, perhaps because they often center livestock. It is very difficult for many people to relate to a chicken, no matter how nasty, brutish, and short that chicken’s life is. Framed with human beings at the center, sustainable agricultural practice becomes more relatable, which in turn may lead to pushes for legislation that supports and subsidizes more ethical practices the way we currently support and subsidize industrial ag.

Meanwhile, down here at the micro level, me and my friends will be shoveling out this goat stall.

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Sustainability, part 3: genetics

It is no secret that the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed is of great concern. While regulations for meat and milk withdrawal times do a reasonable job at keeping antibiotics out of the food supply, large populations of livestock receiving subtherapeutic amounts of antibiotics over long periods of time has contributed to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. Life, as Dr. Ian Malcolm tells us in the movie Jurassic Park. Bacteria are no exception.

If you’ve read the first two entries in this week’s series, you may recall that leaving my property better than I found it is something of a theme right alongside sustainable agriculture. The same goes for the gene pool of the livestock I keep. Standard farming methods require the use of dewormers, supplements, antibiotics — whether synthetic or natural, animal owners use a whole host of interventions designed to keep animals healthy.

I am not averse to treating acute illness or parasite infestation in my animals, but with every use of every intervention, we run the risk of that intervention no longer working. This is true both of synthetic medications made in a lab and herbal treatments: they all use chemicals toxic to bacteria or parasites in order to kill the problem organism. Unfortunately this can cause an unskillfully treated flock or herd to become a tiny evolution lab as pathogens and parasites find a way to thrive, becoming resistant.

What does all of this mean for sustainability? For me it means selecting hardy breeds and/or only breeding animals who thrive without these interventions. I’m not concerned with whether or not an animal has a parasite load, for instance. Any animal living and foraging outdoors is going to have one. What concerns me is whether or not an animal needs constant intervention to moderate her parasite load to a level she can handle. If so, these aren’t genes I want to add to my program, and the animal in question will be sold or culled.

Our chickens and guineas, living free range, are the most ruthlessly culled, but not by us. Birds that don’t thrive usually get picked off by predators before we even notice there’s a problem. The result is a core flock that is hardy, wily, and excellent parents. They aren’t purebred anything, making their offspring not particularly marketable in today’s pet chicken economy, but they are birds that my ancestors would have recognized as good livestock — unlike the purebred flocks that have lived confined and medicated and coddled for so long that they’ve forgotten how to even sit a clutch of eggs.

The goats are a slower game, since it takes so much longer to raise a new generation. Here I crossed in Baylis line Spanish, renowned for their hardiness and good hooves, to improve my beloved but relatively fragile dairy goats. Being a large investment per animal and living confined, it’s much easier for me to spot signs of acute illness and parasite infestation and act on them, but if it’s happening too often then an animal must move on. There’s a small market for my outcrosses, since there are still people who value hardiness and low-input care in goats over pedigree. Certainly it’s easier to sell the babies than it is with the chickens!

Two small, graceful Soay ewes. One is auburn, the other dark brown. Both have creamy markings under their chins and bellies, relatively long legs, and elegant quarter-circle horns.
The Soay ewes invite you to admire their phenotype and cherish their genotype.

Lastly, the Soay sheep offer their own conundrum as I learn to shift to conservation breeding. To remove a Soay ewe from the gene pool is a monumental act, although not so much for a ram provided he has plenty of brothers. Each kid is precious to the small Soay genetic legacy but the ewes, who can only produce one or two offspring per year, are most precious of all. Here, the best way to maintain hardiness is to try like hell to avoid inbreeding depression while at the same time matching the most disease and parasite resistant rams with ewes whose bloodlines need a little boost in that area.

The maintenance of animals who can establish a detente in the arms race with parasites and pathogens on their own means that when I really need a medical intervention for one, it will work. It means that when I sell an animal, the new owner isn’t also getting a load of well-evolved parasites that laugh at the thought of fenbendazole. And it means that I’m not constantly rounding animals up to give them shots of antibiotics, drenches of dewormer, or other unpleasantness for the animal.

Sustainability isn’t the fast game of this year’s show season, milk test, crop of lambs. And hilariously, in this case, it means not only selecting for and protecting livestock gene pools, but conserving the gene pools of parasites and bacteria as well, to maintain populations susceptible to medical intervention for as long as I can.