by Barbara Ruzgerian
Recently our neighbors had us over for the most divine leg of lamb that I have had in my life. (And believe me, being of Armenian ancestry on both parents sides, I know the taste of a succulent piece of lamb!) I wanted our neighbors to try some before I ran out. Our neighbors offered to cook it, and being the connoisseurs they are, I knew I was in for a treat. When we sat down, oh . . . the smell from that kitchen would make any carnivore salivate! The quality and tenderness of this lamb, why I buy it and who I buy it from, are the subjects of this story.
I contemplated my friend Karen’s words, “know your food source,” on my flight home from Eastern Oregon. I had just spent a week with Karen on her 40-acre ranch in Richland. You may have heard of Hells Canyon or the Snake River? If not, google it and you’ll get the picture of just how lovely and remote this area is. This is cattle and ranch country and home to Karen’s Grass-Fed Lamb (www.karensgrassfedlamb.com).
My friendship with Karen has been a long one, well over 30 years, and I can attest to her quality of character as well as her quality as a shepherdess and farmer.
Oh, and a few other details, only because you need the picture that this person really knows her stuff and applies her knowledge base to raising her animals. From a scientific background as a microbiologist to being an accomplished practicing acupuncturist, Karen is especially dedicated, compassionate and caring of her human clients, as well as with her farm animals. She is deeply focused, well studied and has a conviction about what she is doing that is infectious!
March is the time of year when mother sheep, ewes, give birth — thus “lambing” in farm vernacular. Karen asked me if I wanted to give her a hand during lambing. She suggested the best week for me to be there when the lambing barn would be the busiest. As it turned out, nature had something else in mind and I participated as midwife’s assistant in one twin birth, which was the culminating glory of my experience. It was spectacular, tender, and unforgettable.
Karen said, “Most times the ewes can lamb just fine on their own. That’s preferable, but some of them got a little too fat over the winter, their lambs grew big inside them and that’s why ‘Snow White’ who is small herself, needed our help to get her lambs out.” The two lambs born to Snow White were named Snow Drift and Snow Flake. Karen names her creatures which helps identify them and track their genetic lines. Naming also seems to connect us to the animals.
Karen asked me to watch for behaviors that might indicate a ewe’s readiness for birthing (they scratch and paw the earth with their front hooves). There were areas to observe where new mothers and lambs were kept, and areas where pregnant ewes were kept. Triplet families were off in their own area. It amazes me how Karen can keep all this straight!
I didn’t just observe the sheep, I observed Karen doing what had to be done to make this all work and that means long hours and sometimes sleepless nights out in the barn caring for critters. Did I mention it was darn cold out there in Eastern Oregon?
One of the most delightful memories I had was watching the little lambs spring and bounce all over the yard. This usually happens at sundown, and they seemed to look forward to breaking all the rules, jumping off bales and racing around. Karen calls this “Lamb Olympics.”
Another important fact about this farm is the purity of its water. All these fields, orchards and pastures need irrigation and the source for this irrigation comes from pristine snow melt from the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Karen is helped by her two Border collies, Bonnie and Dew, who had to patiently put aside their herding jobs during this critical time as to not disturb birthing. These dogs are intelligent working animals, an integral part of farm life, loyal, disciplined and such loving company.
Here is the end of a poem by Marge Piercy, “To be of use,” which Karen loves, and which conveys her personal ethic:
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
You can support sustainable farming and order grass-fed lamb from Karen by visiting www.karensgrassfedlamb.com.