Sheep as land managers: Two-day program at UMass uses ewes to showcase sustainable land management

  • A sheep is grazing on the lawn at the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies on the UMass Amherst campus on Friday afternoon. The sheep was part of a two-day demonstration of sustainable land management called Sustainable EweMass. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bob Skalbite, an employee of the Hadley Farm at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, reads through signs about the history of UMass agriculture and land grants at the college. The display was one of many items at Sustainable EweMass, a two-day two-day demonstration of sustainable land management on the UMass campus last weekend. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sheep graze at the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies on the UMass Amherst campus, Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sheep graze on the lawn at the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies on the UMass Amherst campus on Friday afternoon. The sheep were part of a two-day land management demonstration called Sustainable EweMass. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 9/26/2022 8:04:37 PM

AMHERST — Forget the lawn mower — if you need that grass cut cleanly, look no further than UMass Amherst’s Sustainable EweMass program.

Launched last fall, EweMass offers a comprehensive demonstration of sustainable land management, and was held last weekend at the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies. There, a dozen sheep from the Hadley Farm at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture sat idly munching the grass.

Margaret Vickery, a lecturer/undergraduate program director at the Architecture and Art History departments, said the program’s purpose was to show how people are connected to the land, as well as to showcase alternative means of caring for it without pesticides or machines. She said that in addition to being an effective means of managing grass, the sheep also produce meat and wool.

“We’re not suggesting that there won’t be any more mowers,” Vickery said. “It’s really that we think about broad solutions, many solutions to these issues.”

Vickery said certain companies in Texas and California have utilized the animals to eat the grass around solar farms, where they can get closer to the solar cells than a mower, but without damaging them.

“It’s really inspiring, I think, and that’s also what we’re hoping for is to inspire the younger generation,” she said. “There’s a lot of stress and a lot of worry and a lot of doom and gloom. Sometimes we can give hope and inspire people to look for solutions that they might not have thought of before.”

Kelly Klingler, lecturer of environmental conservation, said the program can compare different types of land management being used now with using sheep and goats, which dates back hundreds of years, and see the environmental impacts. She added that EweMass ties into the college’s land grant history and agricultural roots. Similar programs are being used at UMass Lowell and schools on the West Coast.

“So, we’re hoping that this service continues to provide sort of an interdisciplinary platform for folks to create projects and student work and research and coursework,” she said.

Inside the Kinney Center were books dating back to the 1500s. Some were farming manuals on caring for sheep, but there were also collections of poems and fiction books where sheep were used.

Stationed around the sheep pen were students in the school’s agricultural programs, along with demonstrations on how to make sheep wool into yarn, a very involved process. Sandra Slesinski, who works at UMass’ environmental health and safety department, used a drum carder to complete the preparatory step in making yarn. The carder flattened the wool and once done, she would remove and roll it up. Slesinski grew up in the farming world and said EweMass is a “kindness to the environment.”

“This is a gentler way to get the lawn done,” she said.

At an adjacent station, Heather Bayliss used a walking wheel that her family owns to take the rolled wool and twist it into yarn. She said programs like EweMass help foster a connection with the land and teach it to others.

Owen Embury, a junior majoring in art history, helped organize the event and said it helps people to get outside and experience nature. Felicia Cefonlo, a senior at Stockbridge, said using these animals to manage the land can reduce emissions and the sound from mowers.

“They’re so cool and they have such a mellow presence to them,” she said.

Nicole Brown, an assistant professor of the classics at Williams College, described herself as a lover of nature as sat watching the sheep. She said a program like EweMass can create an intersection of the humanities and sciences.

“We can make a sustainable version of maintaining and landscaping, not relying on lawnmowers,” she said.

Long-term, Klingler hopes that the sheep can be used on other parts of the UMass campus, which would help generate data on the results and potential benefits. She added that not everyone grows up with exposure to the outdoors, and seeing EweMass in action combined with their major could lead to new ideas. For example, a student studying fashion would learn that wool is a durable material and incorporate this into a project, or a history professor could lead a course in land history.

“We’re just hopeful that it’s a jumping-off platform to inspire folks,” she said.

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