Saoirse’s Choice

The hardship of raising humanely raised lambs
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By Shannon Hayes

Shannon Hayes owns and operates Sap Bush Hollow Farm with three generations of her family in the Northern Catskills of Upstate New York. Her weekly podcast, The Hearth of Sap Bush Hollow, centers around raising her family and their life on the farm. This personal essay is adapted from the April 18, 2021, podcast entitled Saoirse’s Choice. It captures a day that Shannon and her young daughter Saoirse selected lambs from their farm for the butcher.

I recognized something important in my ability to shift my gaze. To carry on my family’s business, I needed to practice both ways of seeing—the beast gaze and the feast gaze. The beast gaze lets me view the animal as a creature entitled to care and respect; the feast gaze lets me clearly see what sustains this farm.

I’m using my double gaze this afternoon. My daughter, Saoirse, 17, and I have come down to the farm to help Dad load lambs for the butcher. I stand with him and look out at this flock, delighted. There’s not a single animal here that won’t make for exquisite meat. Saoirse and Jenn, our farm apprentice, climb in to the pen with us, and Mom stands outside, watching. Dad reaches out and pulls one from the flock.

“She’s beautiful,” Mom exclaims. “She should be kept for breeding.” Dad lets that one go. I reach for a ram. “That’s got a white tag,” Dad says. “You can’t take anything with white tags.”

I see a lot of lambs with white tags. And a lot of them are castrated rams, which means we can’t eat them and we can’t breed them.

“What’re they here for?” I question. Silence. “They’re the forget-me- nots!” Saoirse says. The forget-me-nots are bottle lambs born last spring. Ula, my youngest daughter, 14, raised them.

“So all of these are Ula’s pets?” I ask. No one makes eye contact. “How am I supposed to make payroll if I can’t sell any meat? And when did we open a petting zoo?”

“That one!” Mom points to a tall ewe. Jenn reaches for her. “But she’s really nice!” Saoirse calls over the tussle. “She won’t be able to carry lambs through pregnancy,” I counter. I’m grasping at straws, but someone has to keep the business running. I open the gate on the truck and we lift her in. I see my kid wipe away a tear.

“Wait.” We all stand still. “We don’t have to do this,” I relent.

“No.” Saoirse sniffles. “Do it.”

When we drive away, Saoirse’s crying and screams at the windshield, “I hate this!” I don’t have words for my child. Going into the pandemic, she was just a teenager. Then we lost our farm manager and she took over. She pushed aside her personal dreams and stepped in to help with the sheep. She hauled meat boxes and chicken pens and water buckets and packed orders and shoveled manure. She loaded animals for slaughter without complaint.

But now, life is changing, and she weeps for the sheep. I think she probably weeps for all she has faced in the past year. I chose this path, the best way I knew to nourish family, community and the land. Saoirse did not have a choice. Now she does.

She’s too raw for me to explain the importance of switching between the beast gaze and the feast gaze. There is too much to say and nothing more to say. I settle for gratitude.

“Thank you,” I tell her. “Feeling the way you do is right. If you stopped feeling, you wouldn’t care for the animals as well. I’m sorry for the pain, and I can’t take it away. But … I’m so thankful for everything.” I cry with her.

Her sobs recede to whimpers, and the whimpers to sniffles, and the sniffles to deep sighs. And we drive home, hand in hand, neither of us knowing what lies beyond the next turn in the road.

Shannon Hayes is the chef and CEO of Sap Bush Hollow Farm & Café in Schoharie County, and host of The Hearth of Sap Bush Hollow podcast. She is the author of several books, including her latest title, Redefining Rich, due out from BenBella Books in August. Learn more at sapbush.com.

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