Noon Farm Where Conservation Art and Sheep All Flock Together

Summer 2014
Bill and Jean Noon of the MOFGA certified organic Noon Family Sheep Farm are dedicated conservationists. Photos courtesy of Jean Noon.

By Stowell Watters

Sheep graze and ferment. They sniff and chew their way over the fields, taking what they like and unpacking it with bacteria in their awesome bellies. Simply by eating, they preserve and translate energies within the flow of an immutable cycle, acting as quiet guardians of the future-land, incubators and inoculators; conservationists wrapped in wool.

Jean Noon will show you a whole field full of sheep at work; she raises about 70 of them on the MOFGA certified organic Noon Family Sheep Farm in southern Maine. She and her husband, Bill, have kept all kinds of sheep for the past 44 years and can trace the bloodlines of their flock back to a Columbia breed developed by two-time secretary of state and word master Daniel Webster.

“I like beasts, I don’t do weeding,” Jean says of her sterling farm, which is nestled between streams in Springvale, a village of the old mill town of Sanford.

Plenty of Water

Sanford was put on the map as a booming center for the textile industry largely thanks to the churning Mousam River, which literally turned the wheels of manufacturing there in the late 1800s. The readily available power from the river made Sanford a destination town for specialists in the textile industry from France, England and places beyond. Its growth was unprecedented in the woods of southern Maine.

The blue Mousam defines Sanford as it weaves through town and breaks away in streams to water the spreading countryside. The abundance of water lends its name to Springvale, as it rises up in a spring on the western bank of the Mousam.

Residents at the Noon Family Sheep Farm.

For the Noons, all this fresh water means one fabulous thing: a high water table.

“Sheep can drink a few gallons a day, and the water here is abundant and clean, and that is important,” Jean says. “Water is our greatest resource.”

Usually she muses on aspects of her life and farm, the words coming out easily and lightly. But when Jean speaks of water or land or trees, a palpable change occurs. Her language takes on a deliberate weightiness, charged with poignancy.

Conservation through Three Rivers Land Trust

This is because Jean is a conservationist; because she doesn’t just say that protecting Maine’s natural resources is job number one – she backs it up with untold hours of work as president of the Three Rivers Land Trust in York County.

“I just want people in the future to see the fields and woods; I want towns to stop ignoring their treasures of open space; I want to help protect as much as we can,” she says.

Think of a land trust as a nonprofit that either buys or is gifted tracts of land to put into permanent conservation through easements. Think of a land trust as an entity that legally protects the future wildness of lands, the future purity of rivers and the future health of natural resources. Picture 2,500 acres of land in York County that will never be developed or abused because of the work of the Three Rivers Land Trust.

The land trust also helps property owners maintain and preserve the quality of their property, focusing on sustainable forestry maintenance and stewardship of the land and water.

View of the Noon Family Sheep Farm in Springvale.

According to Jean, the key is creating “corridors” between wild lands – places where nature can thrive unhindered by human habitation.

“Wildlife needs unfragmented blocks of land and connecting corridors to exist, so our job is to connect conserved lands, for animals, for water, for forests,” she says.

This is particularly important in southern and coastal Maine, as that area has the highest species count in the state, according to a Gap Report put out by the University of Maine Orono. That report also showed that York and Cumberland counties are developing at a faster clip than any other place in the state, largely due to the close proximity to the coast, Portland and points south.

This means that from the shorebird populations of Saco Bay to the raptors of Mt. Agamenticus, to the salamanders, butterflies and vast array of trees, flowers and shrubs, York County is in the spotlight as a uniquely critical battleground for conservation work.

Among these species are many heavyweight offenders on Maine’s invasive terrestrials list, including Japanese knotweed, multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, Oriental bittersweet, glossy buckthorn, purple loosestrife and the ever-present phragmites (the common reed). Aquatic invasives love York County too, as milfoil and other invasive plants and animals run rampant in the plentiful rivers, wetlands and lakes of the southern county, which annually wrestles with nearby Cumberland County for the number-one spot on lists of reported invasives.

Jean and the Three Rivers Land Trust believe that the spread of invasives can be mitigated by conservation, best practice land use and creation of more expansive corridors. Her vision is to see a corridor from Mt. Agamenticus to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, and the trust would ultimately like to connect to conserved land farther north into the Piscataquis watershed.

Until then, she says, the land trust works piece-by-piece, conserving plots like puzzle pieces on the map and connecting them when possible.

Lambs strip graze at the Noon farm.

“We just keep moving forward, and we are seeking membership to help us support this mission!” she says.

For Jean, farming and conservation are woven together. Climate change is in there, too, as she sees colder winters, warmer summers and more and more invasive plant species finding a foothold in Maine.

“It is all connected and it is all such a big part of our lives,” she says.

Conservation through Legislation

On this point Bill is equally passionate. He recently finished his first term as a representative for Maine’s District 144, which covers Acton, part of Lebanon and part of Sanford. His entire job, he says, is connecting people to government, and, most recently, trying to connect states in New England by way of their support for the genetic engineering labeling law (to label foods made from genetically engineered – GE – ingredients, also called genetically modified organisms, or GMOs).

“The law doesn’t go into effect until five contiguous states pass it; right now it is hung up in New Hampshire,” he says.

Recently Governor Paul LePage made news by signing his support of the food labeling law, LD718, “An Act To Protect Maine Food Consumers’ Right to Know about Genetically Engineered Food.”

MOFGA has been organizing legislative campaigns to label GE foods since the early 1990s, and Bill was prominent in the most recent discourse as the first Democrat to be elected to his District in 60 years.

The key to success, according to Bill, is good old-fashioned thrift.

“I am a farmer, and farmers hate spending money,” he says. “So that allows me to see things from both sides of the fence.”

He is a member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee and took the helm on LD1786, a bill that would allow dairy farmers to sell raw milk and raw milk products with some regulation. A conservationist at heart, a carpenter, farmer and legislator – it is no surprise that the Maine Conservation Voters (MCV) gave Bill a perfect score on its 2013 report card. The seven votes measured by MCV include bills to open the St. Croix River to alewives, improve the process for wind power development, label GE foods, study the impact of climate change in Maine, expand the Kids Safe Product Act, strengthen water quality protections for open-pit mining, and establish a program for paint recycling.

And Time To Raise Sheep

With so much time devoted to conservation work, you would think the last thing the Noons have time for is sheep. In fact, their first 10 years in Maine were fraught with long drives out of state to sell their wool and lamb.

“I was spending too much time driving, too much time just marketing, and not enough time on the farm; it was tough,” Jean says.

Now the Noons are hardcore sheep people. They both came from Vermont with their Columbia flock and used to walk the lot of them down the road to another, separate field. Over time, and with the help of experts from Wales and the New England Sheep Project, the farm has come up with a breed that Jean lists as a “Columbia Rambouillet Leicester Texel Coopworth mix.”

“Basically our biggest challenge is the internal worm, Haemonchus contortus,” she says.

For an organic sheep producer, the barber poll stomach worm encompasses the lion’s share of frustration. The worms attach to the stomach lining of the sheep and suck their blood, causing anemia and death. The female parasite can lay more than 10,000 eggs a day, which live on in the soil and become infective worms in about three weeks under favorable conditions. They are eventually eaten again by grazing animals. The trick to keeping healthy organic sheep, according to Jean, is a regimen of rotational grazing, careful observation and swift treatment of ailing sheep. Jean’s entire sheep management plan is on the farm’s website (www.noonfamilysheepfarm.com) to guide anyone interested in tackling the world of organic wool and lamb production.

The Noons and their dedicated help sell lamb kebab and sausage at the Common Ground Country Fair.

Discovering the Kebab Market

After years of motoring their meat and fiber products around New England, the Noons tired of being off the farm. A breakthrough came on the day of a Natural Resources Conservation Service tour of their farm. When it came time to feed the big group, Bill and Jean prepared what would become a Noon Farm flagship – the now-famous Noon kebab.

“Those kebabs, yeah, that was it, everyone couldn’t stop talking about those kebabs,” Bill says.

The rest is history. The Noons signed up for MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair, and in 1983 they hung up their unmistakable smiling-sheep flag and started grilling kebabs and sausages there. Every year long lines of fairgoers flock to the stand, which has become as much an institution at the Fair as the sheep dog demos and John Bunker’s apple tasting

“We just have such a great crew at the Fair,” says Jean. “Most of them have been with us at the Fair since the late eighties. They call up during the summer to be sure to reserve their places at the grill. We always have a fabulous time working together, and the conversation is always stimulating.” She adds that the farm now makes the bulk of its income there.

The Inspiration of Wire Fencing

Aside from the hubbub of the Fair, the conservation work and the sheep handling, the Noons lead a peaceful life on their Springvale farm. Part of the work involved in farming sheep, according to Jean, is rigging up the electric wire fencing. Wire must be bent to curl around nodes; it must be twisted and cut and wrapped. It must be stretched. The process is physical and requires a heightened attention to simplicity and form.

“It is therapeutic, calming,” Jean says.

In wire fencing Jean saw work worthy of countless hours of devotion, but she also saw art.

“These are the beasts,” she says, pushing open the door of her farm-studio. On the walls countless lithe forms dance and pose, each formed from a continuous bit of fencing. There are horses, many horses, but also sheep, birds, people, and animals unknown

“I am a wirist,” she says. Truth be told, Jean is a former art teacher and artist for life. She works in sculpture and photography and sells her work in galleries up and down the coast. She listens to Yo Yo Ma and pulls wire into hundreds of wild beasts, all in a day’s work.

From the outside looking in, you might think Bill and Jean Noon do about 1,000 different things. You might suspect them of cloning themselves and appearing in multiple places at once in order to get all these different jobs done. But in speaking to them both, you realize that everything they do flows into one moving body of work. They might be raising sheep, grilling kebabs, building barns, speaking at meetings or creating art, but the motive and the message are always the same. For the Noons, there is only the Earth and its protection; all rivers flow over it, all beauty manifests from it, and all sheep graze upon it.

About the author: Stowell Watters is a MOFGA journeyperson at his farm in Limington.

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