Grass-Powered Mowers

Grass-Powered Mowers

It’s pretty darn cool to look out your window and see grass-powered mowers on the front lawn─or maybe that’s just me and my farmer mentality, lol. An on-farm housing crisis prevented me from moving our rams onto the field this season. With everything wanting to happen all at once, it’s been a struggle to get anything done at all. I keep at it, though, doggedly determined to make headway. And somehow I do.

livestock housing crisis
On-farm housing crisis keeps rams close to home!

In addition to daily critter-chores, making breakfasts for guests to the farmstay (which has been quite busy, I’m happy to say), garden planting, and grazing rotations, we have a revolving list of projects that have to be seen to. These projects get prioritized on my big chalkboard, and somehow everything seems to get it’s turn just when it’s needed most.

Housing Crisis

With something of a housing crisis on my hands this spring, our rams have been stranded at their winter accommodations, longing for life on the field. The problem is that Beebe, my livestock guardian dog, will not share a house with the sheep. She commandeers the whole thing for herself! (Insert facepalm here) Sigh…Beebe needs a doghouse, and that just hasn’t happened yet.

To give the boys access to grass until such time as I could make the sheep-tractor a priority, I set up electric net-fences around the house. Opening a corner of the semi-permanent winter-fencing, I was able to allow the rams access to grass around the farmhouse. The fencing wound around the back side of the house, right onto the front lawn for the whole neighborhood to admire, lol.

For the last two weeks I’ve enjoyed the sight of my grass-powered mowers out my windows. I can only imagine what a HOA would say about livestock on the front lawn! Not only that, anyone who cares anything for a manicured lawn would certainly cringe at the state of my yard when the sheep had finished with it.

Sheep are a little on the picky side. They always eat their favorite bits first: the flowers, and any fleshy forbes, leaving behind anything too stemmy or woody. As a result, their mowing job isn’t entirely even, with taller patches in some spots, while other areas are mowed to the ground.

The North American Lawn Fetish

grass-powered mowers
Grass-powered mowers outside my office window!

Personally, I don’t put much stock in the concept of “the lawn”. A status symbol created by the European aristocracy, lawns were brought to America by our founding fathers. It was during the post World War II era, with the growth of the suburbs that lawns really took off. The lawn became a badge of civic pride and virtue. To instill a sense of neighborhood cohesion, and to improve property values, it was written into the covenants of these modern, suburban homes, that homeowners were to mow their lawns once a week. “If you’re not keeping up your lawn, keeping it neat, well-coiffed, you’re letting your neighbors down.”

To me, that smacks of control and manipulation, which rubs me the wrong way to begin with. Who’s to say what isn’t and isn’t of value? If you think about it, value is a very subjective thing─found in the eye of the beholder─much like beauty, I should think.

When you consider the ecological and environmental impact of maintaining lawns, however, that’s when the North American lawn-fetish really doesn’t make sense. Lawn mowers are responsible for 5% of the nation’s air pollution. Compared to what farmers apply to crops, home owners use 10x the amount of pesticides and fertilizers per acre on their lawns. The majority of that is wasted due to inappropriate timing and application. What’s more, 30-60% of urban fresh water is used on lawn care, depleting local aquifers.

Note: Read more about the Problem With Lawns.

As a conservationist, however, my biggest issue with the Great American Lawn is the significant amount of biodiversity lost to this outdoor “space”. For wildlife, lawns are a biological desert. Life there has essentially been killed off through frequent mowing and use of chemicals, so that neither insect, fungi, microbe, bird, nor mammal can thrive. In a world where development rapidly consumes wildlands, we need to let go of that old-school mentality, reject the shackles of societal conformity and control, and embrace the urban greenspace improvement.

Thankfully, my neighbors are wonderful people. They loved having the sheep out front for a bit where they could see them.

Sheep-Tractor Repairs

Back to the tractor…

The other issue keeping the rams off the field, was that our sheep-tractor seriously needed repairs. It’s one of the first structures I built after buying the farm 5 years ago. Par for the course, my knowledge of carpentry, and my tool-skills weren’t what they are now. Hauling the little salt-box house back and forth across the field has been rough on it. The joints had become rickety and unstable. Earlier this spring, too, forceful winds had torn off the front roof. The sheep-tractor was in sorry shape.

Thankfully, I dated a carpenter for 3.5 years─and I paid attention! I could tell that the framework itself was still good, it just needed better bracing. I wasn’t sure exactly how to do that, though, and once I started the project, it would need to be completed same-day because the rams need the shelter.

As fate would have it, one of my farmstay guests during Memorial Day weekend was a carpenter. I was able to pick the guys’ brain for some professional advice on how brace the structure without adding too much weight to it. That really set me up for success with that project, and I think I knocked it out of the park.

The sheep-tractor is a 4-by-6-foot salt-box structure on skids, with walls made of mill-felt. In order to access the structure’s inner frame, I would first have to remove the “walls”. Mercifully, I learned long ago to build with screws rather than nails. Screws make it easier to come back and make modifications or upgrades as needed.

Note: For those who are not familiar with it, mill-felt is an industrial grade felt used on giant conveyor belts in the paper mills. Once, when Maine’s paper industry thrived, whenever the mills had to replace these belts, locals could gain access to swaths of the discarded mill-felt, which has myriad uses on a small farm or homestead.

When I first built it, I was using sheetrock screws for most of my projects─mostly because they were inexpensive and I was comfortable with them. 4 years in the weather, with a significant amount of abuse applied to them, and many of those screws had broken or worried their way out of the wood. I removed as many of the old screws as I could─without actually taking the entire house apart─and replaced them with new self-tapping wood screws. I added my bracing, put the roof back on, and then the mill-felt.

portable sheep tractor
Facebook memories from 4 years ago.

Grass-Powered Mowers

It was almost symbolic when facebook memories reminded me it was 4 years ago to the day, that I was first constructing the sheep-tractor. Putting the repaired shelter into place was immensely satisfying. Finally, we were able to move the rams away from the farmhouse and their winter-accommodations. I’ll utilize my grass-powered mowers to manage the grass on the back side of “Garden 2” (the larger of our 2 gardens), helping to keep the forest at bay. Then, over the course of the next week or so, we’ll shuffle the fences, tractor, and our rams, right onto the field. I feel pretty darned good about that.

Thank you for following along with the story of this female-farmer! It truly is a privilege to live this life, serve my family and community, and protect wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more updates from the farm, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love to you and yours, my friends!

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