A young farm with high hopes

It is a wet Wednesday morning following a night of much rain, as I meet up with Michael Grady Robertson, one of the farmers of Sawkill Farm, to follow along on morning chores—the great daily rhythm of a grass-based livestock farmer.

The spacious 65-acre farm sits along Route 9 in Upper Red Hook, next to 20 more acres that Michael and co-farmer Saundra Ball lease from a neighbor. This thick, wet pasture is home to a small herd of beef cows, two milk cows and their weaned calves, a flock of sheep and their growing lambs born this spring, a flock of 300 layer hens living in a refurbished ‘50s-green trailer, two herds of pigs, and several batches of broiler chicks and chickens of varying ages—a heritage cross-breed known as “freedom rangers.” Sawkill has recently been Animal Welfare Approved—a program that audits and credits family farms who are humanely raising their animals outdoors on pasture.

Marching through the soggy thigh-high pasture, hugging the fence row where the grass is a little shorter, we find Saundra tucked beside their Jersey milk cow Butter. Butter blithely chews her cud as she stands momentarily haltered to the fence in her pasture while Saundra hand-milks her. Saundra joins her at 6:30 each morning and evening to milk her right out in the pasture—where her surroundings are clean, and Butter can remain relaxed without too much intrusion on her day. Nine months into her lactation, she gives about 4 gallons per day—milk that not only feeds Michael and Saundra but also sustains the bottle-fed lambs, provides a snack for the pigs, and is greedily consumed by Gus, the beautiful white too-friendly-to-be-a-guard-dog who accompanies us throughout the morning.

Michael purchased the property in the fall of 2010—lush pasture and hayfield, a small section of flat land that provides an extensive home garden and the possibility of expanding their operation with small-scale vegetable production, and a sturdy barn housing animal feed, tools, and the newest batch of three-week old broiler chicks, which Michael is intending to introduce to pasture by the end of the week. The land is under Conservation Easement through Scenic Hudson—part of what helps to make land affordable to beginning farmers, and thus keeps agriculture within the community.

We deliver the fresh milk first to the pigs—two herds of about eight pigs in electrified net fence who get moved to fresh pasture each week. In shades of auburn-browns and black, these curious, hungry, and demanding pigs are a montage of mulefoot, tamworth, and other heritage breeds that Michael and Sandra purchase from local farms as piglets; they are experimenting with various breeds before settling on sows and a boar who will serve as their breeding stock—a necessity for the farm since they raise 60-80 pigs annually and have to go through various sources to find enough piglets to support their demand. They are particularly taken with the mulefoot breed, which is a nicely proportioned pig voted as having the best flavor by various chefs.

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