desert weyr: carving out a niche on garvin mesa
by noah buhayar
The small library in Oogie McGuire’s home is a trove for the contrary farmer and textile aficionado. British and Canadian agriculture bulletins from the late 19th and early 20th century line one wall, weaving manuals and dozens of books on the history of woolen goods another. In the center of the loft is a well-used wooden loom. The collection reflects Oogie’s and her husband Ken’s effort to preserve rare breeds and work toward a more sustainable form of agriculture on Colorado’s Western Slope.
Their farm, Desert Weyr, occupies 40 acres atop Garvin Mesa, overlooking Paonia. On a clear day, Coal Peak, Mount Lamborn, and Land’s End tower in the distance. For the past seven years, the McGuires have been raising Black Welsh Mountain sheep, Pilgrim geese, Arabian horses, and a variety of chickens, as well as tending to a small apple orchard on this land. Most of their revenue comes from the sheep — through the sale of mutton, wool, or breeding stock. But it’s clear that everything on the farm has its place.
“Part of the struggle here has been figuring out how to develop a system of agriculture that includes both plants and animals that works with the soil types that we have,” explains Oogie. That whole-system approach has led to a lot of trial and error, some successes, and many challenges. The McGuires started with both Shetland and Black Welsh Mountain sheep, but eventually narrowed their flock to the latter because of the breed’s compact size, hardiness, good meat, and attractive wool.
The laying chickens, too, have been a work in progress. Oogie says she looks for breeds that are predator-savvy, able to forage in the summer, and capable of being trained to go back in the barn at
night. “I don’t like herding chickens,” she says with a seriousness that suggests prior struggles. This year she and Ken are trying out Cream Brabanters, Rose Comb Brown Leghorns, Gold-Penciled Hamburgs, and Gold Campines.
Feedstock, in particular, has been a challenge. The McGuires originally intended to rotate annuals so the sheep could graze in the fall. After a few seasons, though, they realized that their land wasn’t fit for plowing: “Every time we disturbed the soil, we brought up a nice new crop of rocks,” says Oogie. They now raise a grass-clover mix, some of which is used for spring and summer pasture, some of which is used for making hay to feed the flock through the winter.
Through all that experimenting, the McGuires have come to prize hardiness, as much as old-line breeds.
Despite winter temperatures as low as -5 degrees, the flock stays outdoors. Not even the barn where the chickens roost is heated. Oogie explains that this keeps fuel costs down and helps she and Ken determine which breeds and individuals are best suited to the local conditions. To date, they haven’t lost a single animal to the cold — not even the chickens, a few of which are Mediterranean breeds.
Some farmers might be discouraged by the conditions on Garvin Mesa, but Oogie approaches each challenge with aplomb. She credits this to Desert Weyr’s size: “Small farms are the place where you can explore alternatives. Because you’re small, you can’t compete with the big guys and you’re more willing to try things.”
But there’s more to Desert Weyr’s success than its small size and its owners’ willingness to experiment. Behind each of the McGuires’ choices is a commitment to preserving rare breeds, a lot of studying, and a desire to promote local, healthy eating.
When Oogie and Ken started breeding Black Welsh Mountain sheep, they set out to learn as much as they could about the rare breed, its origins, best management practices, feedstock, and the breeding choices that led to the bloodlines they raise on their farm. There are only about 10,000 Black Welsh Mountain sheep in the whole world, most of which live in Wales or on the British Isles. The North American population numbers just 1,000; 120 of those live at Desert Weyr, making it the largest flock on the continent.
Because Black Welsh Mountain sheep are so rare in modern agriculture, the McGuires have had to scour the historical record for useful information. Some of the best resources, says Oogie, are Welsh, Irish and English agriculture journals published between WWI and WWII. That’s because the farmers back then were raising Black Welsh Mountain Sheep without the mass use of vaccinations and other treatments available to modern farmers. Those limitations mesh well with the McGuire’s rearing philosophy. When possible, they seek out management techniques to reduce or eliminate the need for chemical treatments.
The agriculture journals have also helped Ken and Oogie figure out how much and what to feed their animals. Because Black Welsh Mountain sheep is a smaller, old-line breed, the nutritional requirements suggested for modern sheep are simply inappropriate, says Oogie. “If we feed our sheep, even proportionate to their body size, the type of diet that is recommended in most ag colleges for domestic sheep, our sheep get so fat that they can’t lamb.” For that reason, the McGuires have been resurrecting feedstock like turnips and oats that were once popular in Britain, but have since fallen out of favor.
The McGuires hope that all of their studying and trial and error will lead to a better understanding of what breeds work in Western Colorado, and to a limited extent in North America. Oogie is quick to point out that there are more breeds of sheep than any other domesticated animal except dogs. Sheep have been domesticated on the British Isles since Neolithic times. “The (area’s) vast undulating hills were created by grazing animals,” she adds. That history has led to a deep understanding of what breeds are best suited for the land, what lasts.
American farmers, according to Oogie, have a long way to go before they attain that same understanding: “I don’t think anybody in America knows what sustainable is, because we haven’t got enough thousands of years in agriculture in this area to really understand.” After a pause, she adds, “‘sustainable’ to me means economically viable, environmentally viable, and covering multiple human generations.”
For the McGuires, pursuing a sustainable form of agriculture on Colorado’s Western Slope means looking for local markets. Their mutton rarely travels more than 100 miles. But within that radius, it has gained quite a bit of notoriety. The Little Nell’s Ryan Hardy and Six89’s Mark Fischer have both sought out the McGuires’ meat. “I get lots of requests from around the Denver area,” says Oogie, “but I flat can’t supply them.” The hundred or so broiler chickens the couple raises each year usually sell out far before they ever reach the butcher. They also offer eggs from non- GMO-fed hens and hope to sell goose again this coming fall.
In addition to on-farm sales, Ken and Oogie also sell their meat at the Paonia Farmers’ Market and via Dava Parr’s Fresh and Wyld box delivery service. Starting in June, they will continue offering Saturday afternoon markets on their barn porch, as well as winemutton- and-cheese tastings in collaboration with their neighbors, Terror Creek Winery and Stone Cottage Cellars. •
For more information, visit www.desertweyr.com.
Noah Buhayar is a freelance journalist living in Snowmass. His work has appeared on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Yahoo! Green and KAJX-Aspen Public Radio.