Grazing program grooms ski slope
The snow-covered slopes of Mars Hill Mountain are better groomed underneath for the new season than ever before, thanks to a flock of sheep.
"Cecil sensed my weakness," said Paul Brabant of his 11-year veteran sheep-herding border collie.
"The flock was more prepared for the August mountain climb than I was," he added, explaining how the sheep's build is perfect for uphill grazing and the steep climb to the elbow trail atop the ski area.
Paul's week-long adventure in land management grazing was a lesson in the economics of site management. He noted that the Killington, Vermont ski area employs a full-time shepherd to manage a flock of 150 ewes.
"Sheep graze areas that can't be mowed and do an incredible job, including leaving fertilizer to add nitrogen to help grow the grass," he explained.
"There's also a dollar savings," he said. "It would cost approximately $225 per acre to do an aerial spray or mechanical operation while the cost for managed sheep runs about $100 an acre."
The Mapleton resident didn't come to found his Boreal Lamb & Collie Company just for land management grazing, however. His basic business thrust includes quality meat lambs, sheep shearing services, hand knit wool clothing and the annual litters of American border collies. And, it's only been the past year that the business has come on to full focus.
Paul and Lynne, his wife, originally came to Aroostook County from northeastern Pennsylvania. He grew up in a big dairy county and, after returning home from ten years in the Navy, found the small town life had changed with a big Procter & Gamble paper mill.
"The cornfields were rotting...instead of the harvest being taken in," recalled Paul of the visual impact at his return. "The fabric of the community had changed, and we felt that this was not where we wanted to raise our children."
A winter visit to the County in 1983 to see relatives brought the move.
"We left Pennsylvania at 7 p.m. and were just coming through Baxter State Park when the sun was rising.
"I just couldn't believe that there was still country like this," he mused.
When driving out to Mapleton and turning onto McDonald Road, the couple saw a ramshackle house on a littered property. It seemed, to them, fitting for a joke, "that's our dream home." And, it turned out to be (and getting closer every year) just that.
"We skied down to it later. I went up to the front door and it just fell in...downstairs there was a dead skunk," Paul laughed.
While the debate to their move to Maine was 'the chicken and the egg' story, Paul decided to take their combined income tax returns to stay in the County as long as he could. If he could find a job, he could move them up. It was as simple as that.
Wherever Paul went on his job hunt, he got stares. It was the spring of '84 and they were hard to come by - for anyone. He had just three days of funds left before he would leave, and no job. Then, a call. He was told to check at J. P. Levesque. The next morning he had started as a laborer, sorting lumber.
"No one said a work. No one told me what to do," he recalled. "It took me over a week to figure out the mechanics of the work. I remember, too, sitting down to supper and the fork falling out of my tired hand because of using it to grab the lumber."
The job allowed Lynne to move up and, after six months, they would up in their dream house - living in a tent upstairs with no plumbing or livable quarters. That began to be fixed inch by inch, bit by bit.
Paul said he got to learn and love his new work, though it was much different than his background in steam operation maintenance. He even became good friends with many of the men who had watched and waited. Over the years, new opportunities came and Paul got a job at U. S. Energy Corp. in Fort Fairfield. But, that ended last November in employee cutbacks and he needed to focus on a new future.
"We had Like then, now two and a half," said Paul. Lynne had gone to University of Maine at Presque Isle to get an elementary teaching degree and she could go to work. Paul was to become Mr. Mom, and also look at ways to turn seven years of hobby-sheep into a viable business.
He decided that raising meat lambs was to be the prime business. His sheep shearing skills had improved over the years and he did that for some in the County. His mother in Kansas offered to turn wool into beautiful handmade product. And, with border collies for sale on the side, a full-fledged business operation was launched.
Having time on his hands changed the hobby focus. With the opportunity extended by Wendell Pierce to graze the Mars Hill ski trails last summer, he put theory to the test and found it worked! Now, he looks at many other areas where, by managing strips as grazing pens, the sheep can do a much more cost-effective job than man.
"You have to know how many sheep it takes for what acreage, and move them at the right time," he explained. He has his eye on the land behind Graves Shop 'n Save and Wal-Mart; (1) because it is overgrown and in need of management; and (2) because he'd also be willing to help clean up the debris just to improve the look.
"Sheep can also do a fire break, groom snowmobile trails and, especially, manage a clear-cut area. The sheep would eat all the broad leaf plants; then you move them before they try the seedlings," he added.
Being a shepherd is becoming second nature to Paul. He recalled the view of Mars Hill from the mountain top.
"I remember that Sunday morning, and watching the people come out of their houses to go to church. It was a magical, other-world view. I could imagine what being a shepherd was like in Christ's time.
"In fact, that early Christian imagery will be shared this Christmas when some parish members from St. Mary's arrive to share my Christmas Eve manger watch...I just told them they can't talk. It's a time to be silent," he said.
The scene, of the peaceful night, provided the business name. 'Boreal' from the Borealis, or Northern Lights.
"The sky looking out to Ashland in that special light is part of what makes living in the County so special," he commented.
In this way, he acknowledged that a successful venture isn't measured in just the income produced. He sees growth only coming from marketplace need, and innovation at grass roots level.
The future? They'll exhibit their handmade woolens at a crafts fair at Sweeney Ridge the second weekend in December. Providing adventure experience with sheep farming and grazing is also a possibility, though he'd hope to network with area lodging facilities to provide overnight accommodation.
And, getting more people to eat, and love the taste of lamb is on his agenda. At the December crafts fair he will be cooking up a big pot of cinnamon lamb stew. Other ideas on simmering on the stove at home.