Most folks say the Scotch, Irish and British were attracted to the Western Catskills because it reminded them of home. Windy hills and rocky pastures wouldn’t intimidate their souls, nor those of their livestock. The roads of Delaware County bear the names of their ancestors – Glen Burnie, Irish Hill, Scotch Mountain, Dingle Hill, Thomson Hollow, MacGibbon Hollow, McNaught Hill, and so forth. And while Germans and other nationalities settled here, it is the Anglo-European influence that holds the most sway over our understanding of our past.
Here are some breeds of livestock that when seen on a farm today, give clues to the heritage of our farms and give us a way to understand the make up of a farm of yesteryear.
One of the breeds of cattle brought over from the southwest town of Galloway in Scotland was the Belted Galloway. Considered a rare breed, it is believed to be a cross between the all black native Galloway cattle and the Dutch Lakenvelder cattle. The outer coat of hair is coarse and sheds the rain, while the softer undercoat provides insulating and a waterproof barrier – making them well suited for Catskill winters. They can graze on pastures that would be shunned by other breeds, able to digest coarser grasses without issue, producing well marbled meat on grass alone with no grain added to their diet.
A generation ago they were nicknamed “police car cows”, but since black and white cruisers are pretty much a thing of the past, they go by the “Oreo cookie cow” these days. While most Belties are black with the white middle strip, the bred does produce brown coats as well.
Just as recognizable as the Oreo cookie cow is the Scottish Highland cattle. Most of the breed in Delaware County is of a brilliant russet color, although they do come in black, dun and brindle coats. Their long shaggy hair and huge horns, even on the females, give them their unique appearance on the farm landscape.
Well suited for cold winters, their thick coat produces leaner meat, as less fat is required to keep them warm. Their caretakers are fond of bragging that they never come in for shelter all winter – the fold will just stand together in patience and outlast the winter weather. They share with the Belties a forgiveness of the coarser grasses and plants, eating what the earth provides.
The UK gave us two breeds of sheep - the Horned Dorsets and the Romneys - which are still raised here, amongst many others. The Horned Dorset is a rare breed that provides not only good wool and meat, but produces a high-quality milk as well.
What is important to understand about agriculture in the western Catskills is that long before there were dairy farms, there were many, many, small self-sufficient farmsteads, and that sheep were crucial to a farm family’s ability to survive. The stonewalls that surround many of the hayfields on dairy farms of this past century are often sheep walls from the century before, giving a silent nod of gratitude to their predecessors. Raising a mix of sheep such as the Romney, valued for their long, lustrous wool fibers, with Dorsets and their great milk, gave the mix of products needed to maintain the farm family. Not all farmers could afford to keep a milking cow or beef cattle until their means improved, so keeping smaller sized livestock allowed for smaller barns, easier feeding and animal husbandry, faster consumption when slaughtered, and the all important wool for cloth.
While the Scotch gave us a red and a black cow, the British gave us a red and a black pig. A heritage breed, the gingery-red colored Tamworth is thought to be descended from wild boars. In the early 1800’s it was bred in Staffordshire with the Irish Grazen and most improvements to the breed stopped. It is a very rugged animal, able to thrive in cold climates even with harsh winds, and adapts well to the Catskills. Local, sustainable farmers today like the Tamworth for its intelligence, good maternal instincts, and ability to forage for itself in the woods. As a medium sized breed, it can grow to a dense body mass without much fat, making it a very healthy meat.
It’s counterpart – the black Berkshire – is prized for it’s juiciness and high fat content, making it good for longer cooking or higher temperature recipes. A larger breed than the Tamworth, it matures quicker too. Farmers often debate which breed they like better, but cooks will tell you they each have their place on the farm and in the kitchen depending on the recipe.
Stone and Thistle Farm, East Meredith
So picture yourself on a small farm outside of your favorite Delaware County village. A farmhouse with a summer and winter kitchen and a nice front porch. Spinning wheel in the parlor. Vegetable garden. Root cellar. Apple orchard. Small barn for sheep, goats, a pig, maybe a Beltie out back, and a draft or riding horse. Smokehouse. Chicken coop. Ice house. Throw in a sugar shack for making maple syrup. It wouldn’t take much to have that life all over again, especially with the hearty breeds described here.
If you are curious about current day farming and where you can pick up locally raised meat or wool, a good resource is the Pure Catskills website. Stone and Thistle Farm in East Meredith offers farm tours to their dining guests before their Saturday night on farm dinners or Sunday morning brunches and sells their Scottish Highland beef and Tamworth pork seven days a week out of their farm store. Cooking pasture raised and grass fed meats is a little different that cooking meat from a grocery store. Don’t waste your money – first buy a book like Grass Fed Cooking with Shannon Hayes from Sap Bush Hollow Farm.