Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Meet the Sheep: Harriet, Charlotte, and Sybil

By: Allison Shelly, Farm Programs Intern
Have you ever considered a career in sheep smuggling? It probably is not the best of career choices, but a long time ago, sheep smugglers helped to bring one of the most important sheep into our country. Why were sheep being smuggled, you ask? Read on and learn about our very own Merino sheep, why the breed is so important and what smuggling has to do with their introduction to the United States 

Merino sheep originate from Spain and for a long time were known as the Spanish Merino. These sheep were and still are very highly praised for their wool. Unlike the Tunis and the Cheviot, who are considered mostly meat breeds, the wool on the Merino is the breed’s best attribute. Merino wool has many properties that make it highly desirable. The way Merino wool is structured makes it nearly waterproof, since it can hold up to 30 percent of its own weight in water and still not feel wet. Many times people consider wool as itchy and heavy; Merino wool has a different structure that doesn’t irritate the skin as much, feeling less itchy. In addition, it is also fire resistant and tends not to get smelly as quickly as other fabrics. Many modern sportswear companies use Merino wool in their clothing because of all these natural properties.  
One of our Merinos, showing off her mid-summer coat.
While people in the past might not have understood specifically why Merino wool did all these things, there was definitely a high regard for Merinos and their wool. Spain wanted to keep a monopoly on the sheep and taking a sheep out of the country was punishable by death unless the king had given special permission. Even with their strict control of the sheep, the monarchs would gift small flocks to their allies to help them improve their sheep. Through selective breeding the countries were able to improve the local sheep with Merino blood and the monopoly Spain had on Merino wool became challenged.

While those countries in Spain’s favor managed to get a few Merinos out of Spain, the United States did not come into the mix until later. In 1785, a group in South Carolina offered a prize to the person who kept the first Merino flock in the United States. Eight years later, William Foster of Boston, Massachusetts smuggled three Merinos out of Spain and had them shipped to the States. He was called to France shortly after and left these prize sheep with a friend. Unfortunately, his friend did not understand their value and used them for his dinner table, claiming the meat to be excellent. Years later, Foster found his friend at an auction buying a Merino for $1,000. 

Foster’s sheep may very well have been the first Merinos in the United States, but others would continue to introduce the breed. In 1801, a Merino ram, named Don Pedro, was relocated a number of times until landing near Wilmington, Delaware. With the help of Don Pedro and more importations of Merinos, large flocks of pure breed and part breed Merinos could soon be found in Delaware.
The famous ram, Don Pedro.
From: Carman, Ezra A, H.A.Heath, and John Minto, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bureau of Animal Industry. Special Report on the History and Present Condition of the Sheep Industry of the United States. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1892.
One man, Robert R Livingston, took special interest in Merinos during his time as minister of France. He imported three Merinos from France to his home in New York State in 1802, believing them to be the first Merinos imported into the country. Shortly afterwards, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Essays on Sheep: Their Varieties- Account of the Merinoes of Spain, France ect. in which he promotes the breed, claiming them to be the “first rank” of all sheep and to have the best wool of all sheep in Europe. With the help of this pamphlet and his continued interest in importing and collecting Merinos, Livingston was able to spread the word about this breed and increase its popularity in New York State. By 1808, the New York State Legislature was offering an award to any person who would import a Merino ram into any county that did not already have one. If the ram lived in that county for a year they would receive a $50 premium. It was with Livingston’s help that Merinos became popular in New York.

One of our Merinos and her lambs. Stop by and visit them!
By 1845, Merinos were cheap enough for any farmer to afford, and would have been a worthwhile investment due to the high quality of their wool. The museum’s very own Merinos, Sybil, Charlotte and Harriet, carry on the proud heritage of Merino sheep. Come out and see them! You’ll recognize them because Merinos have more oils in their wool, which cause the fleece to become dirtier. Also, while the Tunis and Cheviots have bald faces and legs, Merino wool goes down their legs and over their forehead. Charlotte, Harriet, Sybil and their lambs would love for you to visit and admire their beautiful fleeces! 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Meet the Sheep: Bonnie Jane and Daisy

By: Allison Shelly, Farm Programs Intern
There is a tale from a long time ago that tells of a great naval battle. Homelands are to be protected and invaders to be pushed back. Ships crash against waves and fail to see the rocky shore line, breaking into pieces. The surviving crew swim desperately to shore avoiding the dangerous rocks, finally getting precious land under their legs. They struggle onto shore wet and bedraggled to a new life and a new home, a home that their descendants would grow up in and adapt to.

Who would think that this tale of great ships and shipwrecks would have anything to do with The Farmers’ Museum in the middle of beautiful New York, miles from the dangerous seas, but it does. For it was by the shores of Great Britain that the great Spanish Armada sailed up the English Channel to attack England, and it was there that the English successfully turned them away. But what of those wet crew members floundering onto shore? Why they were sheep of course! The might even be great great great ancestors of our very own Cheviot sheep, Daisy and Bonnie Jane.
Our two full grown Cheviot sheep, Bonnie Jane (left) and Daisy (right) relax in the field. 
There has long been speculation that Cheviot sheep could have been descendants of the sheep that may have escaped from ships in the Spanish Armada. The American Cheviot Sheep Society includes a brief history of the breed in one of their Flock books and they mention such a story. But they are not completely convinced, saying, “This tale, however, has also been given in explanation of the origin of yet other breeds, so that coming from the sea, we may accept it as somewhat fishy in flavor and quality.” Instead, they feel that the Cheviot’s had been living in the Cheviot Hills between England and Scotland for a long time and were originally called “long sheep”. Slowly the name changed to Cheviot sheep, after the Cheviot Hills where they lived.

Whether or not the origins of the Cheviot breed began with heroic sheep swimming ashore or by humbler means, the breed’s introduction to the United States is less mysterious. They arrived later than the Tunis, around 1838, and were imported right into the state of New York by Robert Young of Delaware County. More of the breed entered the United States in 1842, brought by George Lowe, and came to live not far from here in Hartwick. The breed spread into the southern counties of New York, especially our very own Otsego County.

Like the Tunis sheep, Cheviots are listed as a meat breed by the American Sheep Industry Association, but this does not mean that their wool is useless. In fact the historic American Cheviot Sheep Society found great pride in Cheviot wool, claiming that it has fewer oils in it than other sheep and, when washed clean, it is the whitest wool on any sheep. In fact even in the field you can identify the Cheviots by their very white wool.
A close up of Daisy (front left) and Bonnie Jane (front right), with our  Tunis sheep in the background.
Next time you visit the Lippitt Farm, see if you can tell the difference between our sheep. The Tunis has red or light brown legs and face with cream colored wool. The Cheviot has white wool and a white face with no wool on the legs. Any sheep that does not look like these two must be the sheep for the next post, the Delaine- Merinos! So come stop by; Bonnie Jane, Daisy and their lambs always love visitors! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

What Did We Do Before Wonder Bread? - Part 2

By: Adrienna Maxwell, Farm Programs Intern

Back in the 1840s, New York State was one of the top producers of wheat in the country.

To first put things into perspective, it is helpful to look at wheat consumption on an individual level. The average family size at this time was six people. It is difficult to know exactly how much bread individuals consumed. In 1875, in calculating how much flour would need to be traded to Sweden, the U.S. Department of State calculated that a person required about .67 lbs of bread per day. Using that number, the average family of six in the 1840s would consume 4 lbs of bread daily, and 1460 lbs (or about 30 bushels) in a year! In 1845 the average acre in Otsego County (which includes Cooperstown, NY) produced 13 bushels of wheat. That means that families would have to grow just over 2.3 acres of wheat every year to feed just one family. That’s not even accounting for saving seed for the following year or selling seed to millers for profit! Thanks to Jenna Peterson, former Farm Programs Intern, for crunching these numbers.
We have a small demonstration plot of wheat behind the hop house here on the Lippitt Farmstead. It was planted by hand, and then furrowed in by our draft horse, Zeb, and the farmers. This plot is only about 1/18th of an acre, which means a family of six would need to grow over 41 times this amount of wheat!
So how did they harvest all this wheat and get it from field to table in the mid 19th century?

Farmers had about ten days at the end of the wheat growing season to harvest the grain before it would separate from the stalk and fall to the ground. They would use a scythe or a grain cradle to cut the stalks and then they would bundle the stalks together into sheaves to take to the barn, where the bundles would be spread out on the threshing floor. Up through the 1800s, threshing (the separation of wheat kernel from stalk and chaff) was done by using a flail to beat the stalks. This allows the grain to separate from the stalks. The winnowing basket would be used to toss the grain into the air, at which point the cross breeze coming through the correctly situated barn would blow the chaff away and leave the kernels. However, with this method some dirt and unwanted debris would still remain and have to be picked out by hand. Another option for threshing grain at this time was to have a team of oxen trample the stalks on the threshing floor, and then use the winnowing basket. Either way, it was hard, time-consuming work.

In this picture, the flail is on the left and the winnowing basket is on the right. These items are hanging in Brooks Barn at The Farmers’ Museum and are used for demonstrations, especially during Harvest Festival (which will be September 15th and 16th in 2012). 
The fanning mill was invented to replace the winnowing basket, sometime between the late 1700s and the early 1800s. This separated the grain from the chaff much more easily than it could be done by hand, and as technology progressed the fanning mill had more sieves added to it and became horse powered and such to make the process even faster.
A view of our fanning mill from the end where the grain and chaff is separated. The grain falls through and the chaff is blown away by the fan blades when the machine is being cranked. 
A full side view of our fanning mill, with a glimpse of the fan blades. This is also resting in Brooks Barn, so stop by and take a look! 
Most of the grain produced in this state in the 1840s was concentrated in the Genesee Valley, as mentioned in the previous post I wrote on this topic; it was then ground into flour in large mills in Rochester and shipped eastward along the Erie Canal, which had opened by 1825.

Wheat was a major product in New York State from the time of early settlement through the creation of the Erie Canal and westward crawling railroads. The Genesee Valley was once known as the “Granary of the Country” and Rochester as “Flour City”. So what happened? Why is wheat no longer a major crop of New York State?

As with the movement of most crops, it was a combination of factors. By the end of the 1700s, farmers were already battling a fungal disease called black stem-rust which was prevalent in any place that wheat had long been cultivated. By 1830 the Hessian fly and the midge fly had both wrought severe destruction on the eastern part of the state’s wheat crop, and production had all but ceased to exist in those regions until about a decade later, when the farmers finally figured out how to fight off these pests. And with the creation of the Erie Canal, it became much easier for farmers from the Midwest to grow wheat and ship flour east.

By the end of 1860, New York and Pennsylvania had fallen from the top production spots, and were replaced by Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The New York State growers held on for awhile because of New York City’s ever increasing demand for grains, but eventually almost all wheat production in the state came to an end. In 2009, New York State was 32nd in the country for wheat production, though there has been some recent movement to grow organic wheat in New York. If you are interested in learning more about that, I suggest plugging “Northeast Organic Wheat Project” into your Google search bar. You might just be surprised!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Meet the Sheep: Louise and Lillian

By: Allison Shelly, Farm Programs Intern
Over the past couple of months I have had the opportuity to be a Farm Programs Intern, and one of my favorite things to do is watch our sheep on the farm. While on hot days they lay in the shade keeping cool, on milder days you’ll find them lazily grazing, the lambs jumping and playing. Look closely and you might notice that the sheep in our flock don’t all look the same. In fact, there are three different breeds of sheep in our flock, and each has very distinctive features as well as a unique history.

The one breed that is perhaps the most obviously different from the others is the Tunis sheep. These sheep have reddish colored heads and legs with cream or white colored wool. When the lambs are young they have a reddish tinge all over, but as they grow their wool changes to the same creamy white color of their mothers. As with many animal breeds the Tunis sheep did not originate in the United States. They were transported from their home country of Tunisia in North Africa when the Consul to Tunisia sent a number of Tunis sheep (also called Barbary or Mountain Tunis sheep)  to the United States in 1799. It was a tough journey for the sheep, and only one pair survived. They were sent to Judge Richard Peters, who resided near Philadelphia. He soon became an advocate for these sheep, and the breed spread quickly through Pennsylvania, and up into New York, though the majority of the breed spread south down to South Carolina.
Lillian (on the right) and Louise (on the left) are the two Tunis sheep on our farmstead. In the middle is Louise's lamb, born this spring. This ewe lamb is a Tunis-Cheviot mix. Learn more about Cheviot's in the next sheep post!
It soon became apparent that the Tunis sheep were an excellent and  well-rounded breed, providing top quality mutton as well as decent wool. Tunis mutton dominated the Philadelphia market, and while Tunis wool was not as high quality as Merino wool, it often used to make blankets. Even Thomas Jefferson had a few Tunis imported and bred them for the quality of the meat as well as for the wool.

Tunis sheep are very hardy and can handle both hot and cold weather relatively well. This was one reason that the Tunis became one of the more popular sheep breeds to raise in southern states. During the Civil War the breed was nearly wiped out, eaten by hungry soliders on both sides. If it wasn’t for the actions of Maynard Spigener from South Carolina the breed may not have survived. He hid the last flock of Tunis sheep on his property by the Congoree River and managed to preserve the breed! Even today the Tunis are listed in the watch list of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, meaning that less than 2,500 Tunis sheep are registered in the United States. After the Civil War the breed was mostly found in the northern states, though recently the breed has been making a comeback in the southern states as well.
A close up of Louise and her ewe lamb. 
While the Tunis sheep may not have been one of the most popular sheep breeds to have an upstate New York farm in the 1840’s, it was one of the options a farmer would have had. This is why you can come out this summer to meet our two lovely Tunis ewes, Louise and Lillian as well as their quickly growing lambs! Maybe they’ll wander up to the fence so you can see, and appreciate this historic sheep breed.

Stay tuned for more information about the other sheep in our flock!    
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