This little Nugget went to market

By Mary Pols, Portland Press Herald | Apr 09, 2018
Nugget, at 1 week old, checks out Belfast Farmers' Market March 30. Portland Press Herald staff photo by Gregory Rec

This little lamb went to market. Also, when he was just 2 days old, to the Patagonia outlet in Freeport, Treat’s in Wiscasset and Rising Tide in Damariscotta. He is a bottle-fed lamb from Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe and his name is Nugget.

“A little boy at Patagonia asked me, ‘What is his name?’” said farmer Greg Purinton-Brown, who along with his wife, Heide, are serving as substitute parents to Nugget. He told the boy the lamb’s full name, Nugget McFluffyhead. The boy looked up at Purinton-Brown, who was wearing the lamb in a bag not unlike a baby sling. “And he said, ‘What is his middle name?’”

The cuteness overload aside, this is a practical matter. Nugget was the third lamb born in a set of triplets on the afternoon of March 22. By the next day, he’d been rejected by his mother, a part East Friesian, in favor of the other two lambs. A ewe only has two teats, and the other triplets were getting there first.

“He wasn’t a good nurser,” Heide Purinton-Brown said. “He got cold and as he got cold, he nursed less. His mother saw him getting progressively weaker and when that happens, it is just natural instinct that they prioritize their healthy lambs.”

Since they started raising livestock in Monroe in 2013, the Purinton-Browns have bottle-fed a lamb before; in fact, as they point out, for farmers who keep lifestock this is not an unusual practice, especially on farms where the ewe’s milk is being sought for dairy products. In those cases, the lamb might share its milk with humans, or be fed entirely from a bottle with a supplement (kind of like baby formula in the human world). The Purinton-Browns used to milk sheep, using the high-protein milk for super creamy gelato and such, but these days they are a cow dairy and diversified farm, making products like yogurt and kefir from cow’s milk. That’s what Nugget is getting, supplemented with an egg and a tiny bit of maple syrup to sweeten it, like a virgin eggnog for lambs.

They didn’t make either the decision to start bottle-feeding Nugget lightly.

“We knew that if we took him away, it would almost seal the deal,” Greg Purinton-Brown said. “If we tried to bring him back later, she would absolutely reject him. But the alternative was, we would come down on Saturday morning, and he would be dead.”

After taking him into the house to sleep Friday, they did bring him back to her mother Saturday morning, just in case this ewe and this baby were an exception. One of them held the lamb in place, the other tried to get him to nurse. But Nugget didn’t have the drive, and his mother wasn’t interested.

“It is the saddest thing ever when you put a rejected lamb in with its mother,” Greg Purinton-Brown said. “The mother made this cute little guttural noise. She nuzzled him and smelled him. And then she booted him away with her nose.”

Which is how Nugget came to be the road-tripping lamb of Waldo County. The Purinton-Browns had errands to do and deliveries to make. She needed a new zipper for her coat at Patagonia. They were dropping off their yogurt at Rising Tide in Damariscotta. One of them could have stayed behind with Nugget, but Saturday is supposed to be the day they get to hang out together. And Nugget was so docile. Heide went looking for their old baby sling (they have two sons, Guthrie and Oliver, 18 and 15) but even though Nugget was under 10 pounds, he was too lanky to fit. Instead he went into a cross-body bag Heide’s sister had made for her.

And everywhere he went, he of the Yoda ears and woolly face – “almost a combed, windblown look” his surrogate father says – was admired and coddled, even at Treat’s, where the Purinton-Browns got some turkey and Boursin sandwiches.

BETTER THAN WILBUR

Let’s get the indelicate questions out of the way. Yes, Nugget wears diapers. Pull ups. Size 3-4T, with a hole cut out of the back for his tail. No, his owners didn’t consider just processing him for Easter dinner.

“I don’t think any farmer would do that,” Greg Purinton-Brown said. “I know they would raise the lamb up with the full intention of that animal having its prescribed life.”

He’ll be outside in a few weeks when it gets warmer and he’s less dependent on the bottle. For now, Nugget sleeps in a laundry basket in the Purinton-Brown’s bedroom.

“So we are co-sleeping with him,” Greg Purinton-Brown said. “It is a little ridiculous.”

But Nugget has imprinted on them. “He only gets upset in the house if we are not around,” Purinton-Brown said. Sheep do belong in a flock, after all. (This was something Heide had to explain to a woman at the Belfast Farmers’ Market who was eager, very eager, to buy Nugget from her.) They put him in the basket (for photos of Nugget there and elsewhere, follow toddypondfarm on Instagram) before bed, then start to get ready themselves.

“He starts to bah and wail a little bit,” he said. As soon as they get into bed, it stops. “They just don’t want to be alone.”

Few people know this as well as Phil and Lisa Webster of North Star Farm, respectively fifth- and fourth-generation farmers, who raise between 2,000 and 4,000 lambs on their Windham farm a season. Phil Webster says he’s learned not to bring lambs inside. “It is usually better for the lamb if you don’t bring them in, because how do you get them back in the barn? The lamb don’t think he is a lamb. He thinks he is a dog. Or a person.”

Because of that, when they rejoin the flock, they never quite fit in, which can also be heartbreaking to watch. But Webster intends no judgment on the Purinton-Browns’ decision.

“What they are doing isn’t anything wrong,” he said. “You couldn’t do it with 2,000 lambs like we’ve got. You’ve got to choose your battles.”

The Websters actively try to move a newborn rejected lamb over to another ewe, if a second ewe is giving birth right around that time and they can move fast enough to trick her into thinking she has had another baby. “We cover that lamb with all her juices and then we present them to her.”

At Apple Creek Farm in Bowdoinham, Abby Sadauckas has one bottle-fed lamb this spring, but she too avoids bringing any of the animals inside, and for the same reason. This bottle-fed lamb wasn’t rejected, but her mother has mastitis, and since Apple Creek raises organic livestock, she can’t have antibiotics. The lamb gets a bottle, but she also gets whatever her mother can give her and is integrated with the flock. “The management is a little easier,” Sadauckas said.

At North Star, the Websters have a whole pen in the barn designed for the bottle-fed lambs, who have each other for company and artificial milk from a bottle or a bucket. It’s not cheap to feed these forlorn creatures – he said a $42 bag of formula is needed for each of them – but the point is to help them survive until they either become breeding stock or reach the age to be slaughtered (no more than a year).

But Phil Webster has also fallen for bottle-fed lambs in the past, like Romeo, who was born on Valentine’s Day. They end up being clingy, but that can also serve a purpose. When he goes to move 200 lambs at a time, the bottle-fed lamb will walk right at his side, and the flock will follow. “They can be almost like a leader,” Webster said.

Then there was Hope, a purebred Hampshire. “The smartest lamb I have ever known,” he said.

Hope did not sleep in a laundry basket next to the Webster’s bed. She slept in their bed, and was adroit about positioning herself well and then not moving all night long. She too went on errands. She returned to the flock eventually, and grew to a ripe old age and produced lots of baby lambs herself.

“If I ever write a children’s book, it will be about Hope,” Webster said.

Like Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web?”

“She was better than Wilbur,” Webster said. “Wilbur wouldn’t have gone into your bed and laid right down.”

SOME LAMB

“This little guy, he seems a little different to me,” Greg Purinton-Brown said. So much so that he’s starting to think, maybe they could wether (neuter) Nugget later on, and he could stay with their ram and three ewes.

“There is a growing population of people in our community who have met this particular lamb,” said Purinton-Brown.

Meaning it would be hard to explain what happened to Nugget, after he lived to the size at which lambs become meat? No, not that. “I would not shy away from that conversation. We have that conversation all the time.”

They run a farm camp in the summer for children, and children ask questions.

“We had one kid ask us where we made the bacon,” he said. “We appreciate their privilege of their lives for sustenance. But sometimes…it may be especially hard for me with this little guy.”

The Purinton-Browns used to have a much larger flock of about 45. They downsized the flock when they moved to milking cows instead, and now their ram does spend a lot of time alone, away from the ewes. It wouldn’t be a bad thing for him to have a companion. Right?

“Here I am, justifying it,” he said, laughing at himself.

Meanwhile, Nugget, having just made what they expect will be his last public appearance (he’s getting bigger) at the winter Belfast Farmers’ Market, was sacked out.

“He is snuggling with me right now,” Purinton-Brown said. “We have become his flock.”

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