SYRACUSE, NY — It’s common knowledge that upstate New Yorkers do not always see eye-to-eye with their distant downstate cousins, and vice-versa.
After all, their lifestyles are wildly different. “Upstate” might be imagined by some people as totally rural, populated by endless miles of cows, farms and grassland, seemingly devoid of large cities or modern culture. “Downstate” is judged solely by impressions of the Big Apple, a mad frenzy of skyscrapers, harried office workers and endless traffic jams.
Oh, really? Well, the 4-H club from Middletown, NY, in Orange County throws such stereotypes out the window. A group of metropolitan youngsters who lives about 60 miles from New York City wowed the judges at the New York State Fair by winning a number of ribbons for their prize sheep.
For example, Vinny Laughman, 17, of Middletown, captured the reserve champion ribbon and lead line novice champion with “Molly,” a 3 year-old Jacob sheep. “Vicki,” a 7 year-old, which is considered old by sheep standards, also rewarded her handlers.
4-H leader Charlene Blake brought 15 children, ages 5-19, to the fair and they stayed a week. How is it possible for suburban youngsters from the Hudson Valley who do not live on farms to have a successful experience at the State Fair?
“We’re not the concrete jungle that (upstaters) think we are,” Blake explained. “Orange County used to have a lot of dairy farms, but now goats and sheep are becoming popular. Most of the (members) live in apartments, but they come twice a month to work on the farms. It’s the nature of the club. They can get very tight with the animals. And we do have a market for the meat.”
The technique of raising sheep is “a tool (used as) life lessons” for the youngsters, even if they don’t plan on becoming farmers. There are the obvious lessons in teaching responsibility and patience. “Sheep are unique. If you don’t love and respect them, you’re gone,” she said.
Some of the Orange County 4-Hers do end up finding an affinity for agriculture. “A lot of kids are staying in farming,” Blake noted. “They’re farming vegetables and some are now managing farms.” The hands-on training is supplemented by classroom study during winter. “But the life lessons they learn are most important,” she said.
Blake has been the club leader for 25 years She has spent 27 years raising sheep, though in an atypical fashion. She fell in love with sheep many years ago. She laughingly recalled how she bought her first sheep while still living in an apartment. She eventally purchased a small farm. Most of the sheep in the 4-H Club now are registered Cotswalds owned by Blake’s daughter, Valerie Gugla, who has her own two-acre farm, Hot Rod Ewes.
“The whole topography (in Orange County) is changing,” Blake observed. “There are more mom-and-pop type farms and not as many (large) families. Farms are downsizing.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the livestock barn at the State Fair, Wyatt Austin, 12, from an upstate farming family, took a break for lunch while his goats happily munched on hay in their pens nearby.
Above his chair, Wyatt displayed a rack of large blue and purple ribbons that included ADGA grand champion and New York State Youth Goat youth junior champion and grand champion Alpine that he had earned over several days. He brought nine goats to the fair and earned eight ribbons overall. The prize-winning Alpine goat is registered as Kritter Kountry 5G Swiss Alps or “Swissy.”
The Austin family of Bainbridge consists of Jeff Austin, who started his dairy farm in 1990, his wife, Kathy, and 25-year-old Jeff Jr. “It’s in our blood,” the senior Austin said of his family’s business.
The Austin farm has 75 dairy cows, but Wyatt’s interest in goats barely raises an eyebrow anymore. He started raising goats five years ago. If the ribbons are any indication, the goat business might expand.
As to why he prefers working with goats more than cows, he has a simple explanation. “Goats are more productive,” he said. “You can make cheese.”
His mom handles the actual cheesemaking, however. Kathy said Wyatt now owns six Alpines, six LaMancha, seven Boer and one Toggenburg and the Austins perpetuate the high quality of the animals by doing their own breeding.