Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sheep - In the Freezer, not in the Pasture

Sheep in Ted's pasture,
next to one of New Hamsphire's ubiquitous stone walls

Every fall, Ted, one of Hubby’s co-workers saves a lamb for us. Or half a lamb. For the freezer. This has been a tradition since we moved to New Hampshire. At first it was a co-worker on the seacoast, and then another co-worker who also gave us half a pig for the freezer, and now Ted who has a gentleman’s farm in the Monadnock region. No, Hubby doesn’t work at a seed and feed store. He works at a major high tech company. It’s just a way of life that goes back in New Hampshire history! It's been a long time since there were full time farmers in the Granite State.

In the 19th century residents were leaving New Hampshire in droves to seek their fortunes in places where crops grew better than our annual harvest of boulders and frost heaves. Londonderry’s own famous son, Horace Greeley, came up with the quotable “Go West, Young Man!” and the rest was history. Life was warmer, easier and cheaper elsewhere. New Hampshire had never been a good place for farming.

Earlier, in colonial history, people lived in New Hampshire and tried to eke out an existence plowing up the stumps from the trees felled in the Great Northern Woods. The granite strewn ground could barely feed their own families. Horrid weather, steep terrain, swamps, boulders and flooding rivers made farming a torture. Unlike pastoral Vermont next door, our state is too rocky for most types of farming. But for a short time in the early 19th century sheep made New Hampshire farmers wealthy. This period of time is known as “Merino Mania” in the history books.
One of Ted's prize winners
Farmers invested in sheep in large numbers. They saw their neighbors becoming rich men keeping sheep, and thus put all their money into developing huge herds. It was perfect for our climate, terrain and landscape. Farmers became wealthy- but only for a short time. The market dropped out of wool when America switched to wearing cheaper cotton, and the whole market crash in wool left New Hampshire farmers destitute. They left the state in swarms, or stayed and faced untold hardships of poverty. The consequences practically ended agriculture in our state forever. Left over farmers had to become mill workers or they stayed home on the farm and starved. In the 19th century New Hampshire thrived as a state full of mill yards and mill towns. But small herds of sheep still reign as a small cash crop for many residents, most of whom do not farm fulltime.
So if your ancestors left New Hampshire during this time period, now you know why they might have fled.

And so, we contribute a bit to this part of the local economy. We buy our lamb or half a lamb for the freezer from our friend. We enjoy lamb burgers, lamb meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, roast leg of lamb, and lamb chops year round with nary a trip to the butcher except for chicken and the occasional steak.

Yummmm! Our lamb arrives next week!
Ted's farm in September 2003
The farmhouse is over 200 years old

For another story about the decline in population and farming in New Hampshire in the mid 19th century, please see my blog post

Also, gives a good background on the history of sheep farming in New Hampshire.
Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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