Appalachia's East Fork Farm Seeks Higher Ground on Animal Welfare

East Fork Farm is nestled deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, about 25 miles north of Asheville. As farm settings go, it doesn't get much more scenic. Giles Morris, a recent visitor to the farm and co-founder of the online journal, the Tuckasegee Reader, described it as “breathtaking”—a not unusual reaction. With natural springs and an equally fluid topography, East Fork's 40 acres present to the eye a pastoral postcard.

On the other hand, prospective farmers might find the dimensions and pronounced contours of the farm a handicap. The sometimes steeply rolling hills hemmed in by higher mountains—features which contribute so much to its tranquil beauty—might seem a difficult terrain within which to put down roots and tend animals. That, of course, depends on the farmer—and the animal. Pasture that might prove slightly vertiginous to, say, cattle can be an ideal place to tend sheep.

And that’s what East Fork owners Dawn and Stephen Robertson do. Not only do the Robertsons raise sheep, they strive to do so in a manner befitting the bucolic setting—with a meticulous eye toward ensuring both land and animals (which include rabbits, chickens and trout as well as sheep) are well cared for. With respect to the land, the farm's stated mission includes “preserving and enhancing the ecological health of our farmland and water.” With respect to the animals, East Fork's sheep operation is certified under AWI 's Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) program—considered the most stringent set of farm animal welfare standards in the country.

In accordance with AWA standards, the Robertsons raise their crossbred Katahdin/Dorper flock entirely on pasture. East Fork sheep are medicated only when they are truly sick—which is not often—and no hormones are administered. Lambs are not weaned before their time and never in a manner likely to cause unnecessary stress.

Another distinction of East Fork and other AWA operations is that young lambs' tails are not “docked,” or partially removed. Docking is an extremely common practice to combat flystrike—serving as a shortcut to the careful observation and care that might otherwise prevent such maladies. Docking is stressful and painful for the lambs and can cause physical and health problems, especially if the tail is cut too short. A 2008 report by the UK's Farm Animal Welfare Council referred to tail docking as a painful mutilation that should be avoided whenever possible.

East Fork combines high-welfare husbandry with humane predator management, as well. Coyotes and other opportunists in the surrounding hills know to stay away, as East Fork sheep have muscular bodyguards. The flock is guarded by Great Pyrenees dogs—a breed long used by Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees Mountains. Keeping the dogs on hand allows the farm to avoid livestock losses and eschew lethal predator control. They are also good company.

Of the farm’s Great Pyrenees, Stephen says, “We have had some that we rescued and some that we have trained ourselves.” Integrating the dogs into the flock is a process—the dogs must develop a proprietary interest in their wards. “I learned early on that you don't just buy a dog and throw him in there and say, 'Good luck.' The bonding process between the dog and the lambs is very important.” (For more on the use of Great Pyrenees dogs to protect livestock, see “Humane Livestock Protection: Going to the Dogs to Keep the Wolves at Bay” on page 6.)

The Robertsons settled on this spot 15 years ago. They were not new to the area, having lived previously in a small community on Asheville's south side. Stephen’s family also had a farming background but, as he tells it, they “were primarily truck farmers, raising row crops and taking them to the farmers' market...loads of cantaloupes, tomatoes, cabbage—a completely different type of farming. But the experience was useful.” Before establishing East Fork, Dawn and Stephen were actually “computer geeks” (Dawn's words) in the software business. But they longed for more space within which to raise a family, and a greater sense of self-sufficiency, so they went shopping for a farm. “It’s something we really wanted to do,” said Stephen. “I like physical labor, being outside, and working with my hands.” He says they also enjoy the diversity that farming offers - there is no “typical” day.

For a while after the Robertsons moved to the property, Dawn tended registered Katahdin sheep while Stephen worked outside the farm. But when it came time to choose full-on family farming, sticking with sheep was not a given. In fact, Stephen was once sold on another animal welladapted to uneven terrain: “I had done a lot of research into goats,” he said. “I had planned out how many I was going to run, and was going to go with a Boer/Spanish-type goat.” But that's when fate and a prime opportunity intervened. “I found a lady who was selling her whole flock of sheep, and we just decided to go buy them and start that way. Usually when you buy sheep you get what people don't want, but she was selling the whole flock, and was selling for a very good price. So, there you have it—no goats.”

The setting may be ideal and the chosen animal in sync with the landscape, but the work is far from easy. “Sheep are difficult animals to raise,” says Stephen. “You’ve really got to look at them a lot.” Sheep are prone to parasites—particularly the barber pole worms prevalent in that area. “We run our sheep through the handling facility once a week now, to assess health and address any parasite challenges. We have just made it a regular thing, to really stay on top of lambs. Every Monday, it takes us seven and a half hours.” They are also continually moving the sheep to greener pastures. “We do a lot of rotational grazing to avoid parasite buildup, since the larvae will die without a host. We still do have challenges, but we’ve found that if you're proactive about it instead of reactive, you can save a lot of lambs.”

Despite the need for constant vigilance, Stephen is proud to be counted a sheep farmer: “I like sheep people because they are really in touch with their animals. They spend so much time with them; they know them.” Good thing, because the Robertsons have been able to enhance their business by working with an association of sustainable sheep farmers from the region, all of whom follow the same strict grazing techniques and healthy practices as East Fork, and all of whose farms bear the Animal Welfare Approved seal. East Fork now supplies local area restaurants and retailers with AWA pastured lamb from a number of family farms in North Carolina and nearby Virginia and Tennessee—and is looking for new farms to join the group. This arrangement provides marketing opportunities for local farms unable or unsuited to market directly.

“The other farmers in the group raise their animals the same way I do. It seems to work out pretty well. It's a good alternative to bringing sheep to auction; [The farmers I work with] are sensitive to how the animals are handled and slaughtered and prefer this route to the stockyard.” The Robertsons actually found out about AWA through Chris Wilson, a farmer in the East Fork Farm group. “I was starting to work with a retailer and she suggested AWA as a way to differentiate us in the market.” says Stephen.

The Robertsons are also taking full advantage of their extraordinary vistas by venturing into agritourism. A few years ago, they built a cedar shake cottage on the property with a commanding view of the valley to serve as a rental cabin. It was almost fully occupied last year. Guests aren't expected to lend a hand with chores, however. “They mainly come and relax,” says Stephen. A second, larger cabin is nearing completion, and the Robertsons envision it “as a place families and groups can come and use as a base for rafting, hiking, etc.”

Best of all, since settling in, the Robertsons have been blessed with two new farmhands. Their first daughter, Autumn, was born 12 years ago, followed by Madison a year later. The whole family is now very much involved in the operation. Dawn and Stephen want their children to appreciate where food comes from, and the work that goes into producing it. Stephen says the girls are quick studies so far: “They are learning to not just go through the motions, but to look at situations critically and foresee potential problems. They are starting to look beyond just what they are told to do and see the whole picture.”

For the Robertsons of Animal Welfare Approved East Fork Farm, the “whole picture” in this picturesque setting is not just about earning a living. Rather, it encompasses a strong sustainability ethic, a desire to live closer to the land, and an abiding attention to the well-being of the animals.

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