“Stop Mowing and Start Growing”



[Today is the 7th Anniversary of The Contrary Farmer Blog!]

That’s the motto and battle cry of a fairly new (2011) organization called Urban Shepherds. Its purpose is to encourage grazing sheep on  urban and suburban vacant lots, larger lawns, and other grassy areas like school campuses and the acreages surrounding historic sites and factories. You can find out all about this new idea at urbanshepherds.org. The people involved are having a day of training on May 16  at Spicy Lamb Farm near Peninsula, Ohio. Their website tells you how to get there. Spicy Lamb already uses a power line right of way close by to graze its sheep, benefitting the power company and itself, controlling weeds without mowing or nearly so much herbicidal spraying. Cleveland, Detroit and Akron all have Urban Shepherd projects underway and I suspect other parts of the country are getting into this idea. One of the selling points is that if you have a business open to the public, grazing sheep have proven to be a big attraction.

All right. Why should chickens have all the rights to the backyard barnyards of America? I like to think I had something to do with this laudable project at least indirectly. When our daughter and her family moved to the Cleveland area years ago, for the first time I had a chance to observe suburban lawns closely. I was amazed how they stayed green most of the winter. Many times, trying to be funny, I wrote that suburbanites were the best pasture farmers in America and didn’t know it.

How many lawns will actually turn into sheep pastures is doubtful because there are people who will have conniptions at the idea of having sheep next door fertilizing the grass with that awful, vile stuff called manure. Most suburbs have regulations against fences too, so that would be another hurdle that would have to be overcome. But larger estates and all kinds of grassed areas around schools, historic sites, factories, parks, public utility rights of way could work. I know a country cemetery that uses sheep to keep down the grass. The grazing animals are particularly advantageous  in this situation because they can bite the grass off right next to the tombstones.

Next thing you know someone will invent a diaper for sheep to appease finicky people. But for those of us who grew up around the stuff, the sheep kind— mostly little pebbly turds just like what the deer and rabbits are already scattering all over the lawns of America— is really not offensive or an odor problem. It just disappears down into the grass and can save the homeowner lots of money in fertilizer.

I salute the Urban Shepherds and wish them luck. One of the first things they could do is to join forces with another new and almost unbelievable advance in civilization. There are fathers and mothers now who adhere to what they call “free range parenting.” They are rebelling against helicopter parenting, I guess. They think their children need more freedom during play time, not constantly being  corralled into too much oversight and regulation. I read about them the first time in a AP news story out of Silver Springs, Md. by Amanda Lee Myers. At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. Police there have twice taken into custody two children ages 6 and 10 who were walking alone a mile from their home, delivering them to their parents’ door the first time and the second time to Child Protection Services. The parents were cited with “unsubstantiated neglect,” whatever that this. They were furious, contending that the area around their home is safer than it has ever been in history.

I have the perfect solution. It is time for free range grazing to join hands with free range parenting. Turn all that wasted suburban yardage into home on the range and teach children what the real world is like by teaching them shepherding. They can spend delightful hours while feathering their smart phones, making sure the sheep have water, guarding them against dogs and coyotes and spotting fences needing repair. Then the ancient nursery rhyme would come full circle. Where’s the little boy who looks after the sheep?/ He’s out in the backyard, fast asleep.”


Yes, Russ, I had a permit to drive at age 11. Because of the war they said. Farmers needed more drivers. I drove a car full of other kids to town on occasion. No one thought anything of it. I’ve always wondered if that’s why my generation was not so gung ho about cars— they were not a mark of manhood to us. Gene

Lorenzo Levi Brown May 12, 2015 at 9:59 am

Only problem with urban farming is that the grass species grown in most yards is not endophyte free and can be toxic to sheep…There would have to be changes to ordances to permit “weeds” aka forage species to be grown. There has been a lot of stuff about urban farming, esp since the bankruptcy of detroit….

what has baffled me is why more real estate developers don’t promote it. In New York State, for example, to be exempt from property and school tax all you need to do is have 10K in sales. The law does not detail that farm land has to be a ground level, or that it has to be outdoors. You could have a rooftop farm, peddle 10K in veggies to your fellow co-op apartment members and live there property tax/school tax free…..and in manhatten, those taxes are serious money…

There isn’t as much free range available to most children today. My father was born in 1928. We have his drivers license issued when he was 10 years old and a picture of him that year standing beside the family car. He was leaving to drive himself to a boy scout meeting. My grandfather was a farmer, Oliver machinery and Pioneer seed corn dealer and also owned a school bus contracted to the local school. If he was extra busy during my Dad’s high school years in the 40’s, he would have him drive the bus route on his way to school. After I turned 10, Dad let me take the car out in the pastures and drive around on Sunday afternoons. I remember one time getting it up on 2 wheels taking a turn and thinking along the lines of a title of one of your most popular books. I never told him about that. He never asked.

Dan I love it,I have a name for the ‘disease’ that was described ‘Short Grass Phychosis’

Happy Anniversary! Your blogs are the best. About today’s post: My grandfather said he herded sheep on the hills when he was a little boy in Arizona Territory. How times have changed. He said the main threat to them was coyotes. Too bad Children’s Services were not there to see about him.

Gene: I got this humor in an email from a friend this week. Thought it was very apropos given the theme of this week’s blog. Also as a fellow “recovering Catholic” I found it especially poignant. Hope you all enjoy.
Yours in the effort to spread more manure,
Dan Hubbell

Frank , … You know all about gardens and nature. What in
the world is going on down there on the planet? What
happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff
I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden
plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand
drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the
long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and
flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of
colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.

It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites.
They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to
great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t
attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod
worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these
Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it
and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing
grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

The spring rains and warm weather probably make
grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they
cut it-sometimes twice a week.

They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so
it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off
and pay to throw it away?

Yes, Sir.

These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer
when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat.
That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass
stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay
more money to water it, so they can continue to mow
it and pay to get rid of it.

What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees.
That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself.
The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty
and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to
the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture
in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It’s a
natural cycle of life.

You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have
drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they
rake them into great piles and pay to have them
hauled away.

No!? What do they do to protect the shrub and
tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy
something which they call mulch. They haul it home
and spread it around in place of the leaves.

And where do they get this mulch?

They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore.
St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie
have you scheduled for us tonight?

‘Dumb and Dumber’, Lord. It’s a story about….

Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

Happy anniversary! I’ve enjoyed every post.

After having coon hunters cut my fences and the local punks running mini bikes thru the fieldI can just imagine the nightmare of trying to keep sheep penned in someone yards when some idiot goes by with his radio booming so loud you can here it 5-6 houses away.. THat’s if they dont shoot them for practice. I have thought about it several times but would have to have a great none electric fence made of pipe or wire panels hinged together. I might still try it someday.But I’ve spent my share of time herding pigs and sheep down suburban roads

Hi Gene, Yes I think the Urban Shepherds may have read “Pope Mary” (or at least they should). After reading that book it occurred to me that our parish has about 11 acres of land that is either mowed or is overgrown with multi-flora and could be put to much better use (ie. community gardens, small-scale grazing). The church/school also has a good well that is 300 ft deep. You should send a complimentary copy of “Pope Mary” to the Bishop up in Toledo…..,,Heilige Scheisse!”

My childhood was somewhat free-range shepherd, after chores of course. Meaning when I wasn’t roaming woods and waters while usually mounted on an old bay work horse I took care of sheep in the orchard and pastures which were essentially variations on a theme. The fruit trees grew well with the “golden hooves” of the sheep fertilizing them and the pastures seemed to improve every year. I learned about grazing sheep in the orchard from reading a small paperback magazine called: “Organic Gardening and Farming” which contained articles written by folks with names such as: J.I. and Bob Rodale, Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, Nancy Bubel and other well-recognized names (at the time) in the organic agriculture community.

The lamb and wool sales from my youthful endeavor actually helped considerably in paying for my schooling expenses such as clothes, shoes and books, paper etc. We kept free range chickens and geese too which contributed eggs, manure and some weed grazing. Not surprisingly, Mom fixed meals containing lots of fruit, eggs, poultry and mutton,( that means meat from older sheep, which is usually but not always stronger flavored than lamb), but I don’t recall ever eating lamb meat, because lambs were worth real money. The railroad had a right of way which bisected our property. The railroad owners were pleased because the sheep grazed along the fenced railroad right of way which helped considerably with vegetation management. There was one sad incident when a gap in the fence enabled some lambs to get in front of a locomotive with disastrous results.

I read in the Bible about a free-range shepherd boy named David. It seems he turned out okay for the most part except for when he behaved like a ram with many ewes who still wanted just one more ewe that was already partnered with another ram and paid the consequences.

The free-range children paired with sheep grazing seems like a good societal fit with lots of historical precedence. I wonder how many kids currently taking drugs for a host of alleged hyperactivity syndromes would benefit from being free-range shepherds? Also, they would be doing their bit to address global climate change by sequestering carbon and controlling erosion. Just be mindful that the politically correct crowd might really mount some giant opposition to such pairings. However, I’ve read in an ancient book where a young free-range shepherd surmounted some pretty stiff opposition armed with nothing more than a comforting rod and staff backed up by a sling with some smooth stones.

If the free range shepherds idea runs to fruition nationally maybe lamb meat would be affordable once again instead of a luxury, raw wool prices would cover the cost of shearing and kids could be trained in using weapons to control predators instead of each other. Most importantly young free-range shepherds could learn about real life and real death and gain a sense of self-worth while contributing to their family’s livelihood. That sounds like a win-win situation to me. Maybe some of those young shepherds could become musically inclined poets to leave psalms for posterity. We can dream.

I presume the urban sheep do not have our sheep’s propensity to take off running at the slightest of threats, then clearing the electric fence as if it wasn’t even there. I am always amazed to see videos of sheep that actually will remain in a confined space, even if they are hauled out be sheared. Ours were held in a 9x9ft area with thick wooden boards, which they used for climbing out! I am assured by a friend of ours who helps shepherd over 200, that ours are particularly skittish and crossing them with their merinos might actually result in a calmer breed – one can hope. They were given to us by the way.

We’ve employed grazing instead of mowing for about two years now. We are on 10 acres which is divided into a 7 acre pasture and 3 acres for house and “lawn”. It seemed crazy to me to mow the front while the sheep stood at the fence and watched, so when the grass starts to look like it needs to be mowed, I simply turn the sheep out onto it (along with our goats and the cows who live next door at my neighbor’s property). They do a wonderful job of mowing, getting it all uniformly down to the same length. Once it is mowed, they go back to their respective pastures until the next time it needs to be mowed. I love that the grass is food instead of simply mulch to grow more lawn and personally I love the fertilizer they add along the way. The dung beetle activity we get to observe in the manured areas are simply a bonus and when I think of all the time, gas, and wear and tear on the mower I am saving, I know I’m making the right choice.

Well I was definitely a Free Range Child several farm neighbor kids and myself used to cover a 2 or 3 mile radius pretty good on foot and on my old workhorse Prince left over from Grand daddy’s horse farming.Boys especially that were kept under their mother’s care all the time were scorned and made fun of in those days.In the 50’s and into the 60’s it was very common for people especially the more wealthy to run sheep in their yards at night a couple times a week when they could close the gates and then run them out in the morning.
As soon as some Movie Star does it it’ll be the rage.

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