Spring Lambing Chaos In Northwest Farm Country

April 3, 2010

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Pierre-Louis Monteillet, of Dayton, WA, holds a young lamb at his farm. Spring lambing season can be near chaos for hard-working, sleep-deprived Northwest farmers.

(GH: Northwest News Network correspondent Anna King reports for Northwest Public Radio.)

DAYTON, WA – Farm life can look serene from afar. Shows like the old stand-by All Creatures Great and Small portray a slower pace … nothing like the hectic city grind full of traffic, nagging email and never-ending Tweets. But this time of year, life on many farms is at its most frenetic. Correspondent Anna King traveled to a sheep and goat cheese farm in Dayton, Washington. She has this snapshot of rural life during lambing season.

To an outsider, life at the Monteillet Fromagerie looks crazy. Just a short visit to the artisan cheese farm sends my head spinning.

Sound: Crowd noise

In a small cheese tasting room winemakers are trying to pair their libations with cheese for an upcoming promotion. A pro photographer wanders around in colorful muck boots snapping shots. And guests from China have dropped in for a tour.

Then there’re about 300 hungry sheep and goats to deal with. And there’s cheese to be made.

Joan Monteillet and her French-born husband Pierre-Louis have been running this farm since 2002. That’s when they gave up wheat farming to take care of sheep and goats. They’re rather calm amid this flurry.

Joan Monteillet: “Ven Aici, Ven Aici!! That’s French for come here.”

Sound: Sheep and lambs respond

In the space of a couple of spring months, the Monteillets will work to help bring 200 new lambs and kids into the world. It’s like a busy maternity ward. For the sleep-deprived farmers it’s a bit like a long distance marathon. Pierre-Louis says during the birthing season…

Pierre-Louis Monteillet: “… anything can happen during any time of the day or the night so it’s a little more stressful so when that period is over you know we are glad because it’s not as hard on us and the animal too.”

Pierre-Louis and Joan are constantly shuffling sheep and lambs into different pens. They keep the mothers and their lambs together at first so they can learn each other’s scent and call. Each mother and lamb has a unique voice.

Sound: Bleat

The newborn lambs are hard to resist. They’re friendly. They totter near the fence on unsteady legs. They stand about a foot tall, have translucent pink ears, bright-white curly coats and wet-pink little muzzles.

Pierre-Louis Monteillet: “They are so innocent. The innocence of the animal. If you treat them right, they think you are the mother and they cuddle with you. But when they get a little older then they know the difference and they get a little more wild. But at the stage they are at right now they are just innocent and defenseless.”

Still, not everything about birthing season is pleasant or cute. Joan says sometimes the mothers have trouble giving birth. And the sheep or lambs die as a result.

Joan Monteillet: “At first I would cry every time we lost a baby. I would just think Oh my God! And you can’t. It’s not just callous it’s just more realistic when you have over 200 animals. It’s different from five when every animal counts. Now we have a pretty good system of emotional control.

But the Monteillets say along with the difficult times comes a lot of joy from their chosen lifestyle. Pierre-Louis grew up in a small city in France, while his wife grew up on a wheat farm in Eastern Washington. They’ve both learned a lot about animals, and themselves, since they started. Pierre-Louis says soon the brief chaos of spring will be over.

Pierre-Louis Monteillet: “We like the lifestyle obviously. It’s a seasonal life. You work from sun up to sundown. Seven days a week, full bore for a few months. So when fall comes we sort of like the fact that it’s slowing down and it’s a more reasonable life.”

It’s a life in concert with the rhythms of the sun. Eventually, these lambs and kids will be sold for pets or milkers. Some will end up on dinner plates. Despite all the work of lambing season, the arrival of these tiny animals is celebrated. They’ve brought in the milk for the farmers’ artisan French cheeses for another year.

Sound: Bleating, farm sounds

Copyright 2010 Northwest Public Radio

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Monteillet Cheese


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The Northwest News Network is a collaboration of public radio stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. N3's reporters bring a regional perspective to daily news and produce features that go beyond the headlines.
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