In their field: Why the Warners keep a flock of sheep
CHESHIRE -- Every day, Wendy Warner and her husband Mark go to work at their 9-to-5 jobs -- she is a physical therapist assistant at Hillcrest Commons, and he drives an oil truck for Oil Express in Pittsfield -- and then they come home, drive two miles straight across Cheshire to Windward Farm, and take care of their flock of sheep.
To say they do this all alone would not necessarily be true. Two border collies, Vinny and Tessa, provide a lot of support, and a donkey and a llama act as guards.
The Warners' farmland, which they lease from the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, is on Windsor Road. They have used it for 25 to 30 years, and before it was a sheep-only enterprise, it was a dairy farm too. There are still some cows there, but not many.
"This has been a farm since the late 1800s," Wendy said. She's been in farming all her life: "The farm at the bottom of the hill? That's my parents' place."
They have 100 acres -- 40 cropland, some woods. She uses a rotational grazing method, moving sheep from place to place. She's got a flock of 47 now, eight unexpected lambs, and a ram named Hank.
Wendy came to sheep organically. "I was a 4-H kid," she said. "Still am."
The family had a dairy farm, and she and her siblings showed cows but also "did their own thing" -- and sheep were her thing. She sells meat in bulk -- you can buy a half or whole animal, and she'll arrange butchering for you. She said she'd rather do it this way than go to a USDA slaughterhouse because they are so scarce in the area, so waiting times can be long and dates must be booked far in advance.
Booking far in advance also means sheep may not be at their peak.
"I would feel horrific -- if you are paying me a decent sum of money, I'm not going to butcher something even though they're not ready," she said.
The Warners keep the business fairly small, and you can customize your cuts of meat. If you're not into stew, you can get more ground lamb, and so on.
"I break even," Wendy said. "If I could quit my job and do this, I would."
Wendy has always used border collies as herding dogs, and she takes them to compete about once a month. They do pretty well, she said. She was introduced to them when she was in college at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, working on a degree in animal science. The collies are easy to train, but like everybody, they prefer to do the tasks they enjoy.
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"Their instinct is to gather," she said. Vinny, for instance, likes splitting the sheep apart, so if Wendy needs him to bring her one lame sheep, or turn a herd of 20 into two groups of 10, that's a fun game for him.
"Some jobs are like, 'Oh, I do it because I have to,' " she said.
"Training border collies -- you're never done," she emphasized. "Nobody (on the farm) gets a free ride. Everybody works. ... Just because they're trained doesn't mean they're polished."
But when she's out in the field and asks Vinny to split the sheep, "when it happens correctly, it's magic," she said.
So, all this sounds idyllic, and when I visited, it looked idyllic too. But Wendy was open about the ugly side of all of this. It's an expensive hobby. Animals get sick. There are sleepless nights, and she's slept on the couch in the office in her barn more times than she can recall. Stacking hay is hot and brutal. When I visited, she had a book on her desk called "Lamb Problems."
But she can't stay away. She said her colleagues at Hillcrest make fun of her for her passion, and her Facebook is full of posts to the tune of "why do I have sheep?!"
But it's easy to sum up, and it's why so many of us keep at our passions, even though they sometimes weigh on us.
"When I come to the barn in the morning, to hear a lamb crying makes my soul feel good," she said.
Obviously, after selling lamb for nearly three decades, you're going to be pretty passionate about it, and pretty helpful in finding a recipe. Wendy gave me a booklet published by Eating Well magazine and the American Lamb Board, and this recipe is adapted from there.
Marketing has been an issue, Wendy said. Lamb isn't as heralded as, say, Angus beef. But she thanks doctors all over the world for reinforcing the health benefits of lamb, which is lower in calories and easier to digest than many other meats.
Mint-pesto rubbed American lamb
(Originally to serve 12; divided to serve two.)
I got two lamb steaks; I have tons of wild mint growing all over my yard, so this recipe was an easy choice. This recipe was originally for a leg, but hey!
1 4 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 8 cup packed fresh mint leaves
1 8 cup packed fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 2 pound of lamb steaks
1. Preheat oven or grill
to 350/medium hot.
2. Put basil, mint, parsley, pine nuts, cheese, oil, garlic, salt and pepper in a food processor and pulse until fairly smooth.
3. Sprinkle lamb all over with another 1 4 teaspoon salt. Marinate lamb in pesto mix for at least an hour.
4. Roast the lamb until it's 140 degrees for medium rare; the American Lamb Board says that's 14-18 minutes for steaks.
Learn more about Windward Farm, or ask about purchasing meat by emailing Farmgirl.firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (413) 743-4733.
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