At the High Field Sheep Facility, Mary Stephens is raising awareness as well as livestock. Mentoring the next generation of farmers, she sees a bright future in Dutchess County through community engagement, agricultural education, and open land use. Georgina Schaeffer tells us more.
I meet farmer Mary Stephens in the parking lot of High Field Sheep Facility in Clinton Corners on a cloudy day in the late summer. She greets me with a steady smile and bright eyes. A USDA animal ID coordinator, Stephens has recently returned from a three-week deployment in California to fight virulent Newcastle disease, a fatal poultry virus. Stephens operates her own business, MCS Livestock, out of High Field Farm, where she also serves as the barn manager. As we walk along a dirt path, Ralph, a Great Pyrenees cross, wags his tail as we pass pastures dotted with Romney, Southdown, and Shropshire sheep, while Violet barks the alarm to our approach in a distant field. A guard donkey lumbers toward us. One hundred and twenty acres belonging to the Kagan family, virtually all of it pastured and placed under Dutchess Land Conservancy protection, is home to some 60 head of sheep, a few cows, and various other animals. “The most important thing to happen by selling the development rights on High Field Farm is that this land, no matter what, will always be in agriculture,” Stephens begins. “This farm was once a dairy farm, then a world-renowned Angus farm, now it’s a diversified livestock farm, raising both beef and sheep, and eventually, turkeys, too. The face may change, but the story remains the same.” High Field sells its own yarn, socks, roving, hides, fleeces, freezer lambs, and breeding stock available most of the year. Stephens’ forthcoming endeavor is “Wine and Wool,” a fiber arts studio where the public will be able to create items using High Field’s own roving and wool, while socializing over a glass of wine.
Stephens grew up in Connecticut, joining Future Farmers of America (FFA) as a young girl and “was just hooked,” she says. “I tried to leave agriculture, but I had to come back. Barn time is my time.” In high school, she milked cows after school, during college she managed a chicken farm, and after she graduated from the University of Connecticut’s animal science program, she managed a Hereford cattle farm. She met her husband at the New York State Fair where they were both showing cattle, and, after stints in Maine and Arkansas, the couple settled back in Dutchess County 20 years ago. Today, her husband manages the Kagans’ cattle at Uphill Farm, while Mary manages the High Field Sheep Facility with her daughter, Meagan. “Knowing that the Kagan family made a choice to preserve this land is inspiring. Several young shepherds have raised their own lambs in this barn. Mentoring 4H and FFA shepherds is part of the beauty of this barn and that it will always be available [to them],” Stephens says. “I believe more people would pursue agricultural endeavors if there were more opportunities to access land that is not being fully utilized. I am very fortunate to have this relationship with the Kagan family.”
This relationship includes a close working friendship with the Kagan’s fifteen year-old daughter, Helena, who has begun her career as a young farmer, raising her own champion Romney sheep, and market lambs, as well as cattle. “She was champion beef showman this year at the Dutchess County Fair. She had the champion short horn and the reserve champion steer. She’s become quite the cattle woman,” Stephens says. “Agriculture has a very bright future if kids like Helena and other children in 4H and FFA students pursue a career in the field.” Stephens’ own vocation began with 4H and just a few sheep on a small property. “It teaches [children] compassion and responsibility. It’s amazing what six little chicks can do.”
In addition to serving on the board of the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Growers Association, Stephens was a 4H leader for 15 years, and agricultural education is her passion. “I wish ag education could be in the everyday curriculum of all schools. The curriculum is out there, but there is no funding to support it,” she says. “It’s not just knowing where your food comes from, but the passion and love of the land, the hard work folks go through to put food on your table. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.” In this, Stephens says she couldn’t ask for a better partner to the farming community than the DLC. “They are sincere, they do what’s best for agriculture, and they fight to keep the land open. We need more organizations like the DLC.”