Mike Kirk: Raising the sheep that tend the vines

Courtesy photo
Mike Kirk and Marion Bourgault-Ramsay raise sheep on their 30-acre farm in Charlotte. Kirk said he developed a love for the animal and the concept of pasture rotation while a student at UVM. That interest led to a local partnership with Shelburne Vineyard, where the couple’s sheep grazed among the vines.

PHYL NEWBECK

According to Mike Kirk, neither he nor his girlfriend, Marion Bourgault-Ramsay, come from farming backgrounds. Kirk, 32, was born in Philadelphia and Bourgault-Ramsay, 29, is a native of Montreal. Nevertheless, the two have decided the farming life suits them. In 2012, Kirk purchased some sheep and two years later, when the pair began dating, they started Greylaine Farm in Charlotte.

Kirk graduated from UVM in 2009 and developed a love for sheep and pasture rotation when he subsequently spent time on a small homestead.

“At UVM I became more aware of what I ate and how to vote with my dollar in a way that is better for the earth,” he said.

Kirk started raising sheep on leased land before moving to property owned by Bourgault-Ramsay’s family in Charlotte.

“We have 30 acres of pasture on our farm,” Kirk said, “so we are breeding and raising sheep that are well-suited to pasture rotation. We’re at a point where we have a good base of ewes and we get rams from a farm in Minnesota.”

Greylaine Farm currently has 40 ewes but Kirk is looking to increase the number to 200 in the next three years.

In the past, Greylaine Farm has also raised pork but this year is dedicated to the breeding and genetics of their sheep. The pigs on the farm served a purpose beyond meat production.

“We use them to clear out invasive species in the woods,” Kirk said, “which creates habitat for the sheep.”

The farm also has goats which feast on invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn. That also increases the sheep’s access to the wooded areas where they have greater protection from the elements. Bourgault-Ramsay works full-time at the farm but Kirk has a second full-time job as the head butcher at Philo Ridge Farm.

This year, Kirk embarked on a new project together with fellow UVM graduate Ethan Joseph, who works at Shelburne Vineyard. The two had talked about bringing Kirk’s sheep to the vineyard but the project took off when Kirk’s brother told them about a UVM professor named Meredith Niles who was studying sheep grazing in New Zealand.

“I emailed her and we had a quick meeting and were able to apply for and receive a grant to start this pilot project,” Kirk said. “Ethan and I were going to do it anyway but the stars aligned.”

The process is labor intensive since it requires ovine transportation and someone to watch the sheep during the day, but Shelburne Vineyard was pleased with the results and they hope to continue the partnership.

“We can see the difference,” Kirk said. “They were able to move the first mow back by a month and a half. Everyone was incredibly excited.”

Since Kirk and Bourgault-Ramsay have been focused on breeding, they have not had a lot of meat to sell and so far, have just sold directly to consumers.

“We’re working on scaling up,” Kirk said, “and eventually we’d like to be in some of the bigger markets in Burlington.”

There has also been talk about placing a meat freezer at the vineyard. The sheep will graze outside for as long as possible before retiring to the barn for the winter. Last year’s early snow accelerated that process.

“We’re farming in Vermont,” Kirk said. “It’s kind of crazy sometimes when you overwinter animals, but with proper management and having woods and windbreaks, they are happier and healthier.”

Leave a Reply

Shelburne News requires that you use your full name, along with a valid email address. Your email address will not be published, shared, or used for promotional purposes. Please see our guidelines for posting for full details.