Bone Dry Ridge
Selma Bjarnadottir, Member Spotlight, June 2012
Selma Bjarnadottir was born and raised in Iceland. She grew up in the city, though her grandparents and uncles are sheep farmers. At twelve years old, Selma went to work on a sheep and horse farm that became her second home. Selma went to college in Eugene, Oregon, and fell in love with the West Coast of the United States. Eight years after college she bought the 40-acre Bone Dry Ridge farm with her husband Markthor, where they now raise Icelandic Sheep, Scottish Highland cows, pigs, and chickens.
How did you find your farm?
After living in Olympia for a few years, my husband and I were driving around and were invited to pick strawberries at Betsie DeWreede’s Independence Valley Farm in Rochester. It was so beautiful in that area. We sat in her field until 10 PM and decided that was where we wanted to live. We drove around looking for properties for sale, but couldn’t find anything, so we decided to just stop at a farm and ask. A local farmer said the farm up the road from them hadn’t been listed yet, but the previous owner had passed away and they were now the executor of the estate. There was a house, and the land had been leased for grazing. Luckily my husband and I were working for the state at the time and qualified for a loan. We built a little barn and settled into paradise.
You have some unusual breeds; tell me about your animals.
I have Icelandic Sheep because all other breeds are foreign-looking to me. I know them; I know where they come from, what they’re capable of. This climate is very easy for them, they don’t mind the rain but I always make sure they have shade in the summertime. I don’t have issues like hoof-rot — I had never heard of it before coming here. In Iceland, the animals are only around the farm in the winter-time. A month after lambing all the sheep are sent up to the highlands on their own, only to return in the fall. I, on the other hand, move around fences to imitate what the animals do naturally if left on their own. All the animals on my farm are in constant motion. Every few days sheep, cows and chickens are moved to new clean pastures.
The Scottish Highland Cows are also very easy to take care of. Their coats are so well insulated that snow doesn’t even melt on them. Like the sheep, they need shade in the summer. Every winter I set up a sacrificial pasture for the cows because our soil is clay and I don’t want them to adversely affect the other pastures. With clay soils there can be so much muck. We only keep a few cows because they are so hard on the land. I have two calves slaughtered every year. If I were to start all over again I would just do the sheep. They are more suitable to the land conditions.
I keep about six pigs of mixed breeds that I purchase as piglets from a friend in the next valley over. They start out in the barn, but then I move them to the woods. They love it there. I thought about heritage breeds, but in the end it was more practical to have animals that I could get locally.
My egg-layers are the dual purpose kind. I get a different breed every year, so I can figure out which ones to slaughter in the fall. I have a little chicken trailer and they follow it when I move them to a new pasture every few days.
I also raise meat birds. I like raising the red broiler chickens. The one I get is actually called K22. I like raising them because I can get all males and they are all about the same size of 5 to 6 pounds when they get slaughtered at 10 to 12 weeks old. They are also in a chicken trailer and are moved around the pastures.
What kind of feed do you use?
The cows and sheep are totally grass fed. I’ve found that the meat of my lamb is quite a bit milder than those in Iceland because they are eating only grass instead of grass and brush. In the winter they are fed local hay that I purchase from a neighbor. The pigs and chickens get organic grain from In Season Farms. The cows, sheep, and chickens all get Icelandic Thorvin Kelp. I know the fjord where it’s harvested from and I feel good supporting my home country. At a certain time in the winter the ewes will devour the kelp, I’m not sure why, maybe because it is the latter half of their pregnancy. I don’t feel the need to interfere with my animals’ lives very much, I just provide what they need and they take care of the rest.
What have you found they do need from you?
I went to a class on how to raise sheep with a friend of mine some years ago. I was very surprised with all the things they wanted you to do. I disagreed with just about everything in that class—they wanted you to interfere so much. Castrate the ram lambs, dock the tails and dip the umbilical cord in Iodine. I don’t do any of that. To me, they are born perfect and and their mothers are competent and know how to take care of them. My vet tried to tell me to give the lambs selenium shots, since our soils are selenium deficient. To me that is the wrong approach. I give the mothers salt with selenium and other trace minerals in the kelp and they then pass that on to their babies. I do worm them though. I tried not to at first, I thought with rotational grazing I could get away without actually worming. But that was not so. Worms show up at a certain time of year and that is when I deal with them. One of the best tools I have here at the farm is a 50 year old microscope. I take poop samples from the sheep and look at it under a microscope. That way I can worm when needed instead of just guessing. I look for the intestinal worm eggs under the microscope. They will show up as 10 to 15 for some time but then shoot up to 150 in one week. There is a very big difference in the size of lambs that have been wormed at the correct times and lambs that have either not been wormed at all or were not wormed at the optimal time. It can be as much as 10 to 15 pound difference. I usually worm twice in the summer but in the last two years when the weather was a bit cooler than normal, I needed to worm three times.
How do you market?
I made my own website, and through that I have been gradually developing a mailing list which is now at almost five hundred people. I’m also listed at EatWild.com. My neighbor CSA farmers have also all been very generous about letting their customers know that I exist. I keep in touch with my potential customers with a quarterly newsletter. And in the spring I send them the meat brochures to fill out and send with a deposit. I make meat deliveries to Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle, as there are now enough customers to make that feasible.
I love having direct contact with my customers; it makes all the hard work worthwhile. Some even give me hugs. How many people get hugs from their customers? In the beginning I was afraid to charge enough money for my product. It took me a few years to figure out the costs involved in raising animals and running the farm. I felt so bad in the fourth year when I raised the prices significantly. I had always assumed buying directly from the farmer would be cheap but now I know what it takes to raise animals humanely and with care and it costs quite a bit. After the initial growing pains, and explaining to people why my meat was not cheap, I felt more comfortable about what I was doing. It is very important to be honest and straightforward in your contact with your customers. They want to eat meat from animals that have a good quality of life, that is what I do and I do it well.
What advice would you give to new farmers?
Go work on a farm that has the animals you are interested in raising. It is especially good to go to a fairly large farm, let’s say a farm with 200 sheep. Even if you are not interested in having that many animals yourself, you will get faced with all the issues. That hands-on knowledge will serve you well when you are on your own. I would also advise any new farmer to be close to someone who’s doing the same thing they want to do. It is immensely helpful to be able to ask a neighbor for advice or have them come over and show you something. Don’t be in the middle of nowhere, it would be so stressful. I still call up my uncles Bόi and Gummi in Iceland when I need help with sheep issues. Their 140 years combined knowledge is what I like to hear. I would also advise having a mentor. I call Sue at Helsing Junction farm in Rochester my farm mentor. Sue and Anna have run their farm for so long and they have been a huge help to me on the business end of things. Everybody here in our lovely Independence Valley is very supportive of each other. Communities don’t just become great, you have to make it that way. In the summertime when my fields go dry, I take my sheep to graze on the fallow fields of the vegetable farmers. Other people in the valley have also started asking me to graze on their land. My sheep and I are quite mobile. I have a water barrel on the back of my truck, and I pull a big trailer; movable hoop houses for shelter and a solar electric fence. I can take my sheep just about anywhere.
Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
I had seen the newsletters at Betsie or Sue’s. I thought, “Oh, I should be a part of this.” I want to pass some of my knowledge on, and show that there are more than just vegetable farms. I think it is important to belong to an organization that agrees with you. It made sense to belong.
Find out more about Bone Dry Ridge online.