2016 Tater Tat givebacks funded a solar fence charger for garlic + sheep: an intensive grazing, Icelandic sheep legacy dream project. Shepherdess Johanna Bystrom focuses on building the health of the soil and that of her sweet flock. She's looking for real-life Catan trades of sheep for wheat... anybody??
garlic + sheep
founded by: Johanna Bystrom
Tell us about your project, what do you do?
To keep it short and sweet: garlic + sheep is an intensive grazing project that moves as often as possible to pieces of land needing soil-health development.
How did you get into this business? What introduced you to and made you passionate about what you do?
It all started with a house sitting gig in upstate New York. Essentially, I babysat a hobby farm and got hooked on sheep. They were the sweetest and lowest maintenance animals I had ever cared for… which led me to a six-year sheep-dreaming research binge.
A lot of folks are born into keeping sheep or learn through 4H education, but I dove in a few years back when I purchased a flock (coincidentally in 2015: the year of the sheep). It turned out to be one of the most well-thought-out purchases I've ever made.
At that time the sheep were undernourished and had stress breaks in their wool--they were all two years old and had never been shorn--but they were also my dream heritage breed (Icelandic). After taking some samples into the vet and testing for all the scariest sheep diseases, I decided to start my life with them, even though I didn't have property yet. My biggest inspiration at the time was an article I found in the Huffington Post about some guys who started a sheep grazing business in DC. If they made sheep happen in the big political city, I could do it here.
Inspired by my past work on organic farms, my first-year goal was to improve soil health in a field so that it could be planted with garlic. Because garlic is a heavy feeder crop and requires nitrogen-rich soil to do well, and sheep are nitrogen factories, I wanted to experiment with my own micro-ecosystem. That first year I had a super yield of giant garlic and the addition of seven lambs to the flock.
What are you most excited about right now? What are some of your future goals?
I am currently excited for my five of ewes with buns in the oven, happy to continue the legacy of this triple-threat heritage breed of Icelandic sheep. Lambing was a huge learning curve last year, and I am excited to know more about what I'm doing this spring. It's thrilling to see how much the herd has grown in health, muscle, and fiber-quality since I started taking care of them. They are grass fed, with the occasional sweet treats (carrot pulp from my morning juices and oats) and supplemental kelp meal.
Some goals for this year include: finding a truck and trailer, improving mobile shelter systems, and constructing a grid system for seasonal grazing. I'd also love to double-whammy the soil-building by grazing the sheep on cover crops. Replacing native and invasive grass/plant/weed species with grasses that keep on giving to microbial soil health makes sense to me. In two years’ time, I'd like to be on my own land, so I can grow my own garlic crop. For now, I'll let my sheep poop nitrogen into your garden beds.
What frustrates you most about your work or the current food culture at large? What do you wish to change the most?
The biggest frustration/insecurity I have right now in my own work is how often the sheep escape, because I know I am bootstrapping everything together to keep them alive and healthy. I still work two jobs in restaurants and hospitality, which keeps me inspired to be connected to the way our ecosystems should/do work, but that also means I struggle to complete all the tasks necessary to keeping sheep. In the culture at large, I get frustrated that our food system is still ruled by financial giants fueling this root issue of disconnection. We are prone to wretched excess, whether it's because we eat without being aware of what we eat, or we work more to support having to eat, all the while still missing the connection to the health we can acquire from good farming.
Any recent moments of optimism? Things you see changing for the better?
I recently processed a ram lamb for an event I coordinated with Missy Corey, the chef at Virtue Cider, and Jenny White at Velo-City Cycles. I hadn't eaten meat since I brought the little guy to Earls’ Butchery two weeks before the event, but I broke my diet to eat some stew that Missy had prepared for the cyclists after a 25 mile winter ride. It was truly the most thankful I had ever felt to eat a meat-centric dish in my life, and I was filled to the brim with the understanding of true gratitude for the entire food system as I watched one-hundred freezing and hungry cyclists chow down after their January bike ride. That's what it should feel like when we eat: life giving.
Favorite vegetable to eat, grow or wear?
Anything else you want us to know? Anything you want us to help you spread the word about?
I am on the prowl for property and houses to rent and buy next year. In the meantime looking for hay suppliers to work with in the winter months, perhaps real-life Catan trades of sheep for wheat??