Friday, July 8, 2016

Farmer Friday - Sawyer Creek Farm

When people give directions in a small town, the instructions usually go like this:

“Okay, so you’re going to go straight through town past the old Agway. Keep headed down that way until you hit the four-corners with the old dairy farm on the left. When you’ve pass a fallen silo, you’ve reached our place.”

…or something like that.

My visit to Sawyer Creek Farm was a similar experience. Owner Sheila Warden told me to look for her blue house with a red barn, the first one after a right turn. She knew my GPS would certainly fail me once I hit back roads. I pulled into her driveway, disbelieving later that her home was once unlivable in the fall of 1997 when she first moved to the area with her family.

I followed Sheila to the greenhouse she rebuilt last spring after a snowstorm ruined their previous one. Like most farm visits, Sheila doesn’t stop her work just because I am there. This is an act I have come to appreciate because I find the farmers are more in their element. Sheila expressed her hopes to add heat to the greenhouse in the winter as she watered her vegetables because the farm is a zone 3 growing region, unlike the rest of the zone 4 Gouverneur area.

In 2006 after putting their home through a HGTV worthy makeover (I didn’t believe her until she showed me pictures of the transformation), Sheila’s husband brought home a few ewes that needed a rescue home. This was the second time he did this; the first time was over 35 years ago when he got her a ewe for mother’s day in NJ. That ewe was on the plump side, but Sheila assumed the mass of wool covering the presumably nimble frame was the reason. A few days later, the ewe dropped a lamb. Some might say Sheila had the wool pulled over her eyes! Fast forward, to Sawyer Creek Farm in NY and Sheila has been raising sheep ever since. She got back into raising sheep. Starting with the Hampshire rescued ewes, then Dorset’s, then Katahadin hair sheep and finally her favorite, Finnsheep! She has had Finnsheep for 4 years and loves them!!

Sheep jokes aside, Sheila also raises meat/egg chickens, turkeys and pigs. Like many of the farms I’ve visited (Fuller and Smith), the chickens began as a way to save money. Soon friends and family via word of mouth began contacting Sheila for a few chickens and eggs. As she puts it, “As people want[ed] more, I expanded.”

When Sheila first began her meat operation, she knew she didn’t want to have a middleman. Sheila genuinely cares about the product she delivers- ensuring customers get what they pay for without the added markup price stores typically add. As a solution, Sheila does most of the gopher work. In the spring, she calls her regular customers to pre-order an exact amount of chickens/turkeys/pigs/lamb needed (about 150 chickens/season to give an idea). Then, she picks up the animals, raises them to maturation, and personally brings them to a Mennonite butcher who does the processing. From there, she delivers meat directly to customers. The pork and lamb are butchered by USDA certified Red Barn Meats in Croghan. This is repeated three times before October; Sheila understands the want for both fresh meat and freezer space—doing so also divides the labor for her. Sheila charges $3.50/lb. for whole and $4.00/lb. for cut chickens, with the weight ranging from 4 to 9 lbs., although customers can request sizes. Unlike many butchers, Sheila charges by the pound instead of the hanging weight. Again, this practice is for the customers’ benefit.

One point Sheila stressed is how Sawyer Creek Farm came to its 95-acre glory. She is proud of what her family has accomplished in such a short amount of time—a feat she attributes to the amount of sweat equity poured into each crevice of the land. Farming aside, Sheila also works as a full-time bus driver during the school year. After working a full workweek, remembering to weed the summer squash or move the portable fence for rotational grazing can be a nuisance. Sheila does it all, but looks forward to the summer when she can focus solely on her animals and plants.

Like Smith Chicken Farm, Sheila strengthens the local food system. The cost to buy, mature, and deliver the small-scale meat does make her prices higher than WalMart or Aldi’s. However, this calls into question of how a local farmer can make a livelihood when they are constantly outcompeted by larger markets. At GardenShare, we stress the importance of buying locally by promoting farmers markets and CSA programs. For every $10 spent at the farmers market, ~$6.20 goes back into the local economy and ~$9.90 out of $10 stays in the state. Contrasting, ~$2.50 remains regional when that same $10 is spent at the aforementioned grocery stores. The need for healthy, accessible food applies to farmers too as they try to create a standard of living while supporting the local community. This is one statement GardenShare seeks to underscore.

Come visit Sheila at the Canton Farmer’s market most Tuesdays and Fridays. There you can buy everything wool in many forms from a raw fleece, yarn, knit items and processed lamb pelts. Also, homemade soap from pork lard and seasonal vegetables. Meat orders taken, but due to food safety the meat will be set up for a scheduled pickup so it will remain cold as long as possible.