Craig Rogers is a shepherd. His sheep farm Border Springs Farm in Patrick Springs, Virginia, is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, where his lamb and sheep are a favorite among East Coast chefs. Here he shares some of the wisdom from his years of working with sheepdogs and tending to his flock.
1. A shepherd’s life is most humble (the oldest profession)
From the beginning of time, shepherds have been the proverbial “ditch diggers,” the down-trodden, the disrespected. Hence, even the angels came to the shepherds, the lowliest of all men, to share the news of the birth of Christ, as the story is told. Over the centuries, nothing has changed much. From the shepherds of the hills of Scotland, to the shepherds of the new Western frontier, to the Basque shepherds who migrated from Mexico and became the shepherds of the far west and the emancipated slaves who headed west with prolific breeding sheep as their source of livelihood, all have been discriminated upon and viewed as a lowly class over the ages.
Even today, many wish not to be referred to as “shepherds” but instead as ranchers, land owners, or flock owners. The work of shepherding is left to the “lowly” or “immigrant” shepherds. Shepherds have typically been the transient or migratory workforce since the the early days of agriculture. Shepherds have never been romanticized like the western cowboy. In fact, the shepherd has often been cast as the villain, the migratory farmer who was ruining the cattle grazing land of the west.
The famed cattle-sheep wars of the 1850’s saw some cattlemen realizing there was more money to be made in sheep than cattle — but they still they never called themselves “shepherds.” I find great pride in doing the ancient work of caring for sheep, the humble work of caring for the sick, ensuring the health of each individual, providing feed and shelter and protecting the safety and health of the flock. Shepherding requires more hands-on work than most livestock farming. Lambing (the birthing of lambs) often occurs at night, in the cold, and is a solitary farming task where the reward is personal satisfaction in perhaps saving a life of a ewe or bringing a lamb into the world that otherwise would not make it. It is a personal satisfaction with few equals.
2. Sheep are smarter than everyone thinks they are. You just have to be smart enough to recognize it
Over the years I have often been told, generally by non-sheep people or someone with 10 or 20 sheep that are fed from buckets, how dumb sheep are. However, if you pay attention, you can not help but be impressed by how smart they are to have survived domestication since 10,000 B.C. Although many think of their flocking instinct to be a sign of “dumbness,” it is in fact a community-based survival mechanism where they have learned that their strength is much greater in numbers and their comfort and survival is enhanced as a group rather than as an individual. Not a bad lesson for all of us. A baby lamb will enter the world and within a few minutes is up and walking, able to find its very own food source,and is self-sustaining as long as it remains near its personal food supply. You can only wonder in awe at the sustainability and intelligence of this creature. The intelligence of sheep is obvious to all those who take the time to listen to them.
3. Tend to the flock, but care for the individual
Shepherds, like the sheep themselves, learn quickly that the path to success depends on tending to the flock but caring for the individual. Providing clean water, ample forage and shelter to an entire flock is essential to maintaining the health of the flock. But the success of a shepherd or shepherdess is in the compassion they have for each individual. This means being able to identify a sick or injured sheep or lamb within a flock of hundreds or thousands of sheep. Assisting with the birth of a lamb when needed, caring for a lamb orphaned by its mother, providing the expectant mother with enhanced nutrition or weaning a lamb in a compassionate manner are all part of that job. The more concern the shepherd has for the individuals who are in need of health care, supplemental food assistance or individual attention, the healthier the flock and the more profitable the whole operation is. (This lesson applies to more than a flock of sheep.)
4. The joy of birth never gets old — and sometimes is not easy
The miracle of birth graces our farm almost year long. I can still remember the first time I saw a lamb expelled from it’s mother, on the ground, and within a few minutes it was walking wobbly-legged in search of its mother’s teat. It is something I never tire of seeing and if truth be told, I have wasted countless hours simply watching in awe this miracle. However, sometimes all does not go according to plan. Sometimes the shepherd must assist in order to save the life of the mother, the baby or both. Lambs can be born breach, can be too large for the mother to lamb naturally without undue stress to her or the baby, may be too large to ever come out on their own, have multiple births where they are twisted or may have stillborns that need to be fetched out by hand. We have probably shed more tears over lambing situations gone bad than over anything else in our lives. But the joy of putting your hand (and arm) into a ewes uterus, finding the right feet, turning the lamb, getting the head and neck in the right direction and being able to pull a lamb out alive and seeing it take its first breath, watching the mother get up and begin cleaning its new baby is simply without equal.
5. Cute doesn’t last forever
There are few things in the world as cute as a newborn lamb. Maybe a young child holding a small lamb for the first time or bottle feeding one of the orphan lambs may come close. Yes, I do believe that baby lambs are even cuter than baby kittens — though maybe that is why I am a shepherd and not a cat herder. For compassionate shepherds, there is no doubt that the cuteness cuts to our soul and we can not help but to provide a bit more attention and care to the small lambs. But they grow old. They reach sexual maturity around 6 months of age and the lamb that weighed only a few pounds will already be as much as 75 percent of its full-grown size. Much like aging shepherds (though hopefully not as as severe as aging shepherds), they lose their cuteness as well. Sheep are always stunning creatures, at least in the eyes of a shepherd. But the cuteness does not last forever in sheep, fortunately for me.
6. Nothing is more serene and picturesque than sheep grazing a beautiful hillside
Farmland across American is diverse and all with different virtues. From the amber waves of grain to pasture land along the Rockies, from the Green Mountains to the Blue Ridge, there are beautiful farms. But there are few things that can enhance a beautiful pasture more than a flock of sheep happily grazing. Our farm is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Each day I am able to look out my bedroom window to see sheep grazing in pastures near the farm house, and on the “mountain” (a hillside pasture) about a mile away from the farm house where the majority of our ewes gracefully move across the hillside. Many days, around sunset, I will check my flock and simply sit for an hour watching the serenity of a sheep’s life with its head down eating sweet grasses with lambs at their side. I know of no way to forget the stress of business and farm life for a few minutes than simply watching a lamb come into the world or watching them graze on a beautiful pasture. We don’t stop to smell the roses here, we stop and admire our flock of sheep, and maybe pet a few as well.
7. A good dog is more than just a great friend
Many people keep dogs as pets, and the adage “man’s best friend” is shared by almost all. However, there is something quite different when your dog is a working dog. We use border collies to assist us with all of our sheep chores. As I write this, my #1 dog, now retired, Jake, is at my feet. My most loyal and loving friend. But we are also partners. Jake has done the work of four farm hands. Together we could move a thousand sheep from our farm up the road to our “mountain” pasture. He has brought new mothers, ever so protective of their new born lambs, into the barn from the pasture, often having to go nose-to-nose with the ornery ewe. He has rounded up cattle 40 times his size. He was worked in the heat of the summer and in the bitter cold of winter nights.
This is not a hobby for my dogs or for me. This is a partnership where a job must get done. We share in the misery of bad weather, bad sheep and bad circumstance. But we end each day with a shared appreciation for a job well done. Pets are wonderful. Working dogs are one of nature’s true wonders and my life has been blessed with the most loyal of friends and working partners. My dogs have been responsible for my livelihood, my contentment in farming and for my joy to have them at my side day and night.
8. Death on the farm is inevitable. It may even get easier. But it is never easy
Livestock farming involves killing animals. Whether we ship them off to an auction, a slaughter house, or we do it ourselves, ultimately the objective is to turn the animals into dollars to sustain a family and the farm. Sometimes, an animal needs to be euthanatized for humane reasons. And humanity hurts. Knowing you are doing the right thing may take the sting out, but it still hurts.
Sometimes, in spite of your efforts to save a mother or a baby during lambing, the shepherd loses. It hurts. And the harder you try to save the life, the more it hurts. To make enough money to provide for a family to make a farm sustainable requires that a shepherd kill a lot of lambs. But for each lamb killed, there is a ewe who lives to produce again. For every lamb killed, we keep a farmhand employed to care for their family. For every lamb killed we preserve a piece of American farmland that is disappearing at an alarming rate.
When I speak to the general public about the business of livestock farming I refer to “harvesting lamb.” But I never fool myself. My job is to kill lambs for food — with many benefits for the animals and our farm. Although I take my animals to a slaughter house to be processed to sell to chefs along the East Coast, I always kill one myself each year for food. It is never easy for me, but it reminds me what my job is. It helps remind me of the value of each lamb and sheep on the farm, and their death is never taken lightly.
Our lamb is Animal Welfare Approved which means even our slaughterhouse is audited to ensure that the life of every animal is treated humanely until its last breath. It is with honor we raise our lamb and it is with honor we kill each one and share it with the greatest artists we can find to honor the shepherd’s work and the lamb’s life. It is with honor we kill our animals to feed and nourish. One evening, at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, our lamb was the featured entree for a special dinner by Chef Joseph Lenn and Blackberry Farm. The most touching and surprising tribute ever given to me as a shepherd was when a guest walked in late, as we were seated, and he came to me, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you for nourishing us tonight.”
I knew then that the life of those lambs would be honored that night by the artistry of Chef Lenn and that guest — and that was a great honor to me, a humble shepherd.
9. Happy lambs are tastier lambs
Not all lamb tastes the same. Much like apples and tomatoes, each variety has different virtues and flavor. Lamb is no different. Some breeds of sheep have long fine staple wool that spinners adore, others have course wool better suited for rugs, some are of large frame and are used to add size to hybrid lambs. Some are mild in flavor and some have a fat that remind many of old mutton. We use two breeds of sheep to create a lamb with a rich lamb meat flavor with a fat so sweet you want to suck on it like bacon. We have learned that happy sheep are the tastiest sheep. We oversees our pastures with three types of high sugar grasses, and red and white clover to give our grass-fed lambs enough sugar to create a delicious fat. But most importantly, animals that get to graze ample rich pastures, have crystal clear spring or well water and can live in peace of predators or the stress of wondering where the next meal comes from will be the happiest and the tastiest.
10. Nothing makes a party like a whole lamb on a spit
One of the joys of the farm is entertaining visitors on the farm. We show them our sheep, the wonder of our border collies and our livestock guardian dogs, the story of our heritage chickens and turkeys, and the pride of the work of the humblest of all professions — shepherding. But a trip to our farm is not complete without breaking bread.
Many times a year, we put a whole lamb on a spit on the farm. More often we cook a lamb on a spit at food festivals or special events at restaurants. From starting the fire to dinner it takes some 8 hours. During these eight hours, the whole lamb is the focal point of the party. It is where people are drawn to the spectacle and where tales of farming and old family traditions are often told. Often it will remind people of old family stories of how Grandpa would roast a whole hog or lamb. Many times it is the first time they have seen a whole animal prepared for a meal.
But always, it creates a conversation about the value of farming, the beauty of simple cooking, and the fun of sharing a meal with family and friends. There is no better way to start a conversation about the joy and value of farming than with a lamb on spit. There is no better way to celebrate the life of a shepherd than sharing a lamb cooked on a spit.