By Elizabeth Gabriel
March 16th, 2020, was the first day of New York State’s shutdown because of the Covid pandemic. Also, on this day, our son was born 4 weeks and a day early. It was a warm sunny day, and sap had just started flowing. Wood was stocked, the boiler was clean, and we were certainly more prepared for maple season than we were for the early arrival of our son. Fortunately, our mushroom operation - our farm’s main enterprise - was shut down for the winter and our 14 Katahdin sheep enjoying hay in their winter paddocks were easy enough to care for.
As you may know, a newborn in the house changes everything. Since Aydin was a preemie, we needed to syringe feed him or, if I could get him to nurse, we needed to weigh him before and after each feed. Between short stints of sleep, we kept organized spreadsheets to track weights and feeds. Meanwhile, terrified of bringing this unknown virus into our home, deliveries of preemie diapers, clothes and Meal Train meals arrived at the newly made drop-off space in the barn, where my partner Steve sanitized it all first and then let it sit for three days before coming into our house (the recommended protocol at the time, you may remember).
As the warm days and freezing nights continued, we drank sap and were grateful as we watched our tanks fill up. But, it just seemed impossible to make time to boil. If one of us could make the time, we would be too tired. We couldn’t let all this sap go to waste and we also didn’t want to lose the opportunity to bottle up our sugar for the year!
We reached out to a neighbor who has a small sugarbush. To our surprise, he was pleased to take the sap. He would transport it in 200-gallon tanks and, in exchange, give us some syrup. Meanwhile, another neighbor and longtime friend Dan, offered to boil some of our sap on our boiler - he’d take some syrup home and would give us some. We were relieved. The sap wouldn’t go to waste and three households would stock up on golden sweetness. Usually, on the days that Dan would boil, Steve, Aydin, and I would try to join him by the fire for a while, sipping hot sap totties, sometimes sharing a meal, and always enjoying the company and conversation. This was one of the few social activities we were engaging in since everybody was isolated because of Covid.
This cooperative-like maple syrup arrangement was circumstantial, spontaneous and just what we needed! If you’ve made maple syrup before, you know that once you finally have the boiler raging, you want to keep it going all day - even all night if possible. It’s more efficient this way in both wood use and time. We hadn’t realized it, but the days of boiling all day and night by ourselves were over. It was one thing to do that when we were 30-something and childless, but life has evolved - and we needed to evolve with it.
That summer, Dan, Steve and I brainstormed a more organized arrangement to manage the maple syrup operation together. We would all make time to source, process and stockpile wood at our place throughout the year. We’d tap the lines together when the time came, and as the sap ran and tanks filled up, we would schedule a day to boil and rotate through 4-hour shifts to manage the boiler. For each big sap run, we repeated the 4-hour shifts. The last person of the day could stay late into the night or shut down and head home for dinner. We would track our hours and divide the syrup accordingly, Steve and I taking some extra because we supplied the infrastructure - sugar maple trees, tap lines, collection tanks, boiler, etc. It worked seamlessly. Both of our households were pleased with the amount of syrup we took home, and we even had some to sell, though that was becoming less and less important to us.
Let me provide some context. We started Wellspring Forest Farm in 2011 as an agroforestry-inspired farm and school. Back then, our main enterprise was shiitake mushrooms. We also had a tree nursery and planted an array of multi-purpose trees for fodder, food, medicine, stakes, weaving material, etc., sold maple syrup, raised ducks, experimented with water management systems, studied and developed various silvopasture systems with our sheep, and hosted workshops, educational events and offered tours. As is common on an agroforestry farm, we’ve always managed several enterprises, each designed to synergistically fit within and benefit another and each making some money or at least break even.
As for the maple, our operation is micro. Typically, we tap 100 trees on our land and, in some years, another 200 trees that we lease down the road. The sugar maple trees are the overstory to our shiitake logs, which need shade in the warmer months. At our scale, sugaring isn’t an enterprise that generates a lot of income. We profited a bit, but mostly, we have always done it because we have a love for it - the syrup and the making of it. Sugaring is a joyful activity that gets you outside in the snow and cold and it’s filled with the celebration of this magical, delicious and nutritious gift from the trees and anticipation of warmer weather around the corner.
Building on the previous season's success and assuming decent sap runs, we recognized there was room for more involvement. The following maple season, three more households joined our cooperative. In the off-season, we all took part (with babies and kids in tow) in workdays to process wood, fix downed tap lines, or other needs, and during the season, we again took 4- or 5-hour shifts on boil days, tracked our hours and split the harvest. At the end of the season, all of the families shared brunch, complete with several dishes requiring maple syrup.
As our farm has grown over the years, so have our enterprises and systems. Our mushroom operation has expanded tenfold, now producing indoor-grown crops and offering three seasons of CSA’s instead of one. As part of our farm business, we also raise pastured lamb, have two agritourism rentals and host workshops. As part of our larger farm system and homestead, we grow and produce elderberry extract, we raise broiler chickens and manage small fruit and berry orchards and some vegetable gardens. While each component generally fits within our farm’s ecosystem (e.g., elderberry offers a protection hedge for foraging chickens, sheep revitalize pasture, and chickens provide nutrients to the orchards) and the synergy of these systems does make them easier to manage than if they were isolated, each still has its own set of time requirements and inputs, and have become a lot to care for - to say the least - for parents of two kids under four and three part-time farmers (ourselves and an employee)!
The cooperative arrangement with our maple syrup was ideal for us. It not only removed any stress about keeping up with sap, but it was more fun and rewarding doing it with others. We are planning for the same arrangement this year, and it got us thinking - where else can we choose to do better by doing less or doing different?
Ducks were part of our system from the beginning because they played an essential role in reducing the slug population that would ruin the mushrooms (they also reduced populations of slugs and snails in pastures, thereby lessening sheep’s exposure to meningeal worm (see SARE Project Report “Raising Ducks on a Small Agroforestry Farm” from 2019). We sold duck eggs through our mushroom CSA and to the local coop. Though we rotationally pastured the ducks, their supplemental feed costs added up, so we barely broke even financially. Plus, the time it took to move them eventually distracted us from the mushrooms, which were ever-increasing in presence and profit in our business, and we never enjoyed washing poop-covered duck eggs. One winter night, after leaving the coziness of our warm home to go into the bitter dark cold to shut the door to the duck house, Steve and I agreed to give the ducks away to a friend. Although we loved their cackling and funny personalities and envied their joy of the rain, we needed to do less.
We added sheep to our Wellspring system in 2014 because we recognized the need for a ruminant. Not enough pasture for cows, we decided to get sheep. We started with four pregnant Katahdin ewes and our flock has ebbed and flowed between four and 60 heads. As it grew, we started renting and grazing our neighbor's land while also using them to manage our developing silvopasture and woodlands.
The sheep are critical to our farm’s landscape; they have revitalized the old pasture and have proven to be essential to our silvopasture system - eating back bushy undesirables to make space for young hardwood trees to volunteer or for the hundreds of multi-use tree species we have been planting for years. But, as the flock has grown, so has the amount of time spent moving fences and the level of stress that comes with lambing or years of drought. Slaughter fees had increased, and we were barely breaking even financially. With so many mouths to feed, we weren’t spending extra time managing the woods with the sheep - our main goal and interest. Also, we needed more time for the mushroom operation.
In our farm model of multiple enterprises, financial profit from one enterprise isn’t everything, and the ecosystem services of these docile grass eaters are worth more than can be quantified, but something needed to change. We were unsure what to do, so we decided to pause. In our constant exploration to find more balance for ourselves and the land, we also had recently learned about Shmita - simply speaking, the Jewish practice of resting the land, the animals and the people every seven years (for more on Shmita, see thejewishfarmnetwork.org). So, in 2021, we kept seven ewes and five ewe lambs and didn’t breed them. (Two of the ewes were too old to breed, and we were happy for them to enjoy a year of just living. They were slaughtered the following fall). This meant that in 2022, we managed a small flock of 10, giving us more capacity to keep them in the woods for longer stretches while felling trees for them as part of our woods management plan, to rest these animals (can you imagine having a baby every year for every year of your life?) and to think about different ways of raising sheep.
Thinking we were again ready to return to “normal,” we bred 10 sheep this year, resulting in a grazing flock of 25. Again, we find ourselves without enough capacity, spending far too much time (and money paying an employee) moving fences and not enough focusing on things important to us and our farm goals. It turns out one year of rest or playing catch-up wasn’t enough for any of us. We’ve been reflecting all season on our lessons from our maple cooperative - shared labor, more socializing, shared harvest. Like the maple, the sheep are an important and enjoyable part of our farm, but they are not a lucrative part of the business and are not sustainable in their current state.
As we wind down the season, we identified that moving forward, our priority is to graze our land, woods and silvopasture, to spend more time felling and trimming brush for the sheep as we manage our woods (it’s wonderful to hang with them for this half hour or so a day and get to know them more) and spend less time moving sheep fence. We’ve spoken to the neighbors whom we lease land from and will graze only half of it. We will downsize our flock to just 6 breeding ewes, so will have a grazing flock of around 15 next season. We’ll also be thinking about the sheep as the participants that they are - an essential piece of our whole system but not one that contributes to the finances of the business. Therefore, we won’t pay employees to move sheep fence anymore, and - after posting to some local listservs and groups - we found a neighbor who wants to raise the sheep with us. He’s been unable to find land of his own but is eager to raise sheep. We’re still sorting out the details, but at this point, we plan to make a schedule for the grazing season, each taking 1-2 days of sheep chores each week, which includes water, moving them and setting up paddocks for the next few days and set a date to do hoof trimming as a group. We’ll need to figure out winter care labor since it’s much less than during the grazing season and how to manage lambing season and issues/problems when they arise, but we still have time.
We’ve been through a lot in the twelve years since we started the farm, personally and on the farm (see “Why Do I Farm” from TNF’s Summer Issue 2023). We’re drastically different people than we were when we started, and our farm goals have also evolved. We’ve softened a need we once had to always do more and do it on our own. We’ve realized that most of the time, we don’t want to “do more,” but we want to “do better” for ourselves, our family, the land, and our community. Just because we’ve done something for years doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it. We are still committed to making a living as farmers and some of our enterprises meet that goal, but not all of them have to - this is the beauty and the resilience of a multipronged integrative system.