Sunday, April 21, 2013

The farm life -- in college!

Lambing continues on our small farm and part-time agricultural science demonstration center. A three-year old Womerlippi farm ewe named Quetzal had given birth to two lambs when I came home from work on Thursday. I think it was Thursday. It's been a bit of a blur, this lambing season. Both were ewe-lambs, making a total of seven out of eight females.

The one boy, part of the first set of twins born on the farm this year, reminds me of a guy I once knew when I was in the British military. This airman, a London Irishman, had six older sisters who all liked to play "mother." This was in the 1960s and 1970s, so gender stereotypes were still powerful norms. He'd been the subject of so much attention as a kid, he could barely look after himself.

It's going to be an interesting experiment in nature versus nurture to see whether the lone ram actually expresses male behavioral traits or not, on time, as he normally would, considering how much female influence he has around him. My bet is on nature. I expect we'll see him begin to "ram" his sisters around within a few weeks here.

We now have only one remaining mother yet to give birth, a two-year old named Regina. She isn't terribly large, so it's probably a singleton, and I'm expecting a hard time for her since this is her first. Night checks are still needed, as well as regular visits to the paddock during the day, all to check that the lambs remain safe from bad dogs and coyotes, and that the last mother has not gone into labor.

The requirement to visit in the middle of the day remains the hardest part of being both a part-time shepherd and a full-time college professor. You essentially spend your lunch break driving home for a quick look-around, then driving back to work. It's a lot easier when one or the other of us is free to work from home. Then you can just put down your grading or reading or whatever it is that you're doing, and pop out the back door for a look-see, a nice break from work.

This year we messed up on timing. Pre-registration period, when students need their academic advisors to meet with them and choose classes and talk about careers and graduate school and wotnot, coincided with lambing. This was an artifact of other college work, particularly our accreditation review. With our professional personas up to our professional armpits in both advising and the (successful!) re-accreditation campaign, as well as admissions events and and the academic hiring season, shepherding time was hard to come by for the Womerlippis.

We should try to "get real" here.

In a "real" world, or at least in my ideal academic world, my colleagues and the college would see the true value of lambing season (and other experiential education opportunities) to sustainability studies and find ways for the students to cut classes too so they could see the shepherding process up close and personal.

Then they'd learn some applied mammalogy!

Students could then be there for the whole birthing process, learning at least some of the formal and instinctive midwifery required of every livestock farmer. In an ideal world, they'd even learn to warm cold lambs and to intubate. This kind of experience is really hard to come by, and vital to the commercial success of a sustainable farm.

But the fifty-minute class schedule, the secret ogre of college life, the "anti-education schedule", intervenes, every time, with such things, as to a lessor extent does the regular round of administrivial work.

The fifty-minute class norm, to my mind, is the greatest failure of critical thinking in American education today.

At our small college this failure manifests itself in several forms. One is that we have an excellent learning opportunity going begging on our farm, and no way to take advantage of it. Despite the fact that we have numerous students at our small college that want to be livestock farmers, and despite the fact that numerous others wish to work in general sustainability and sustainable food systems in particular, the best the Womerippi teacher-farmers been able to manage this year is showing our slides of the birthing process in one or two classes.

We Womerlippis will really have to do better next year.

After years of advocacy, the college has made a start on livestock programming for the campus farm, and will soon begin operations, but there's a natural limit to what we'll be able to do on campus. Students need to learn to care for animals on campus, because then they have the opportunity to learn the constant daily care regime discipline.

This is the professional ethical imperative of the farmer and the zookeeper -- you have to be there for your animals. Hard experience has shown that this ethic is surprisingly hard to teach. Students need to learn daily care by doing it -- and by being held responsible.

But we won't be able to have examples of each and every kind of animal on the campus farm. We'll still need to take advantage of our local resources: MOFGA and local farms, as well as our own Unity College teacher-farmers.

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