by Troy Bishopp

NORTH BROOKFIELD, NY — A love affair with the land and raising sheep exclusively on diverse pastures has many personal rewards for Etienne and Isabel Richards of Gibraltar Farm. It pays homage to their grandparents’ farm back in South Africa who raised all their own meat from the farm and taught the couple, land stewardship. Their passion to follow these ecosystem principles and produce high quality sheep, manage for soil health, and enhance water retention practices has led the couple to be awarded the prestigious 2019 Madison County Conservation Farm of the Year.

Honoring farms that contribute to conservation that protects water quality and enrich the natural resources while nourishing local citizens is the focus of the 39th annual award given by the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Directors. Etienne and Isabel were honored by 40 guests, including U.S. Congressman, Anthony Brindisi and NYS Assemblyman, John Salka, at a luncheon held at the White Eagle Conference Center in Hamilton, NY.

“These land stewardship practices are a balance of production, economic and environmental arenas that benefit all three,” said Board Chairman, Doug Holdridge. “We champion farmer’s hard work and decision-making in making conservation effective. The future needs of the people regarding food are secure via sound conservation practices installed by our agricultural community.”

The Richards came to the USA in 1999 and made careers as a small-animal veterinarian and IT software professional outside of White Plains, NY. Over the years the aspiring couple kept finding themselves reminiscing about farming and where great food comes from. They started dreaming about re-igniting a family farm here in the USA.

As fate would have it, Isabel hung up her stethoscope for a yearlong apprenticeship at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in 2013 under the direction of then, Farm Manager and Shepard, Craig Haney. “It was then that I fell in love with sheep,” said Isabel. “It propelled us to pursue a quieter farming career upstate, away from the hustle and bustle of suburban life.”

The passion to get back to the land brought them up to the rural community of North Brookfield to buy their “dream” farm from the multi-generational, Pierson Family. The farm first fostered by George and Gertrude Pierson and later, Luellyn and Cathy Pierson, encompasses over 110 acres of open pastures, forest and buffer areas that drain to the Sangerfield River Watershed. With fields over a 10 percent slope from top to bottom and clay soils over shale, the Piersons’ worked with the old SCS office back in the ‘50s to install a series of grass diversion swales and set up contour farming protocols and grassland farming practices to keep erosion at bay.

“When we walked the land with the realtor and saw the potential and how well it could be set-up for rotationally grazing sheep, we were hooked,” said Etienne. The journey took plenty of commuting and weekend-warrior work over one and half years to be able to start farming full-time in June 2015 with 15 ewes, portable flex-netting electric fencing, a few pigs and some bee hives. Moving portable fences, improving pasture swards and the need to have a more secure area going into winter spawned a meeting with Madison County SWCD district staff and their hydraulic post driver.

“Having access to the Wheat-heart post driver and local knowledge on high-tensile fencing building techniques was invaluable when budgets were tight,” said Richards. They assisted the district with another farm’s fencing project in the community as a way to get hands-on training; a skill that paid big dividends as the operation expanded. This “roll up your sleeves” attitude of building fence themselves complemented the goals of the district to protect water quality as perimeter fencing also acted as a stream buffer while complimenting the management-intensive grazing regime. It also attracted some cost-shared financial resources for fencing and water system materials by the Upper Susquehanna Coalition and a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Natural Infrastructure Grant.

Having grown from 15 ewes in 2015, the 100 percent grass-fed flock now includes 165 Katahdin hair sheep and over 300 lambs rotated daily through precise grazing management skills and herding by their trusty, Border collie, Wally. “We expect all our ewes, rams and lambs to be productive with no grain added to their diets at any stage of production. We raise our lambs on pasture so they can learn to be efficient grazers at their mother’s side. We move the sheep out to pasture in the spring, as soon as there is enough grass growth and they stay out 24/7 until the snow starts in the late fall,” said Richards. Being on pasture for over 8 months keeps the per ewe cost at around 100 dollars.

“The most sustainable thing we can do is have a parasite-resistant flock on an all grass system,” said Isabel. Their proactive work and weekly monitoring has led them to partner with the USDA-ARS Genetics and Precision Agriculture Unit on a research project: Understanding parasite resistance in organic livestock and using a systems approach for control. They are also part of the National Sheep Improvement Program.

“We collect lamb weights at different ages, two fecal egg counts and loin eye depth/fat thickness scanning on all our lambs, to be used as part of the evaluation process. We use raw data, EBVs, conformation as well as maternal history to select the top 10 percent of ram lambs and top 50 percent of ewe lambs to be offered for sale or used in our own flock as replacements.” Their approach is economically rewarding, as their sheep are already presold 2 years into the future.

The lambing barn and tight breeding window allow the flock to excel on spring pastures in late April. “The majority of our lambs are sold for meat at different times during the growing season. We want our breeding stock to be efficient grazers with proven parasite resistance that grow consistently well on forage. We expect our ewe lambs to produce their first lambs at 1 year old.”

To date, the Richards have built their own 14,000 feet of 7 strand high-tensile electrified sheep fence while setting aside over 7 acres of stream and pond buffers with 200 trees planted. They have worked with the Madison County SWCD and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition to design and install a high capacity water system throughout the grazing paddocks. They have utilized the local expertise and contractors to maintain critical field diversions, convert previous corn fields into permanent pastures, and learn fence building and grazing management skills and to build a new 60’x 120’ lambing barn equipped with close-circuit cameras.

“We commend Gibraltar Farm for their commitment to the economy and environmental well-being of our great nation, be it local, state or even country. The work of farmers should not be overlooked or underestimated. We appreciate the opportunity to partner with the Richards family in the protection and wise use of our soil and water resources,” emphasized Doug Holdridge.