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Lauren Burns

Lauren Burns © 2022 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Owner, Tending Tilth

Lauren Burns owns Tending Tilth, a Portage contract sheep grazing business that provides a unique option for mowing grass and brush. The company’s wooly eaters have been hired to chomp away on everything from small lawns to tall grass and nuisance bushes and plants at Mayors Riverfront, Woods Lake and Spring Lake parks for the city of Kalamazoo.

“Our sheep love to mow/graze steep hillsides and eat invasive and nuisance plant species like poison ivy, wild grapevine and Japanese knotweed,” says Burns.

And lest you think it would just be cute to have sheep do your gardening, Burns notes that there’s also a big advantage to the environment.

“The conservation aspect to the work we do is huge. No fossil fuels are used, except to transport the animals,” says Burns. “Sheep specialize in grazing a variety of landscapes, including steep hills. While moving through a landscape, sheep hooves aerate the soil and their manure fertilizes, helping to build topsoil. Healthy topsoil promotes plant root growth, sequesters carbon and improves watershed function.”

But, yes, they are cute.

What’s the meaning behind the business name, Tending Tilth?

Tending is another word for shepherding, and tilth is an old term for optimal, healthy soil.

How did Tending Tilth come to be?

I earned a degree in biology at Western Michigan University. After graduation, I worked as a zookeeper at Binder Park Zoo, in Battle Creek, and then Lincoln Park Zoo, in Chicago, taking care of hooved animals such as antelope, zebras, giraffes, goats and sheep. The work involved feeding, keeping the animals’ environments clean and training the animals to receive veterinary procedures such as dental exams and vaccinations. I fell in love with animal husbandry and grew increasingly interested in conservation and regenerative agriculture.

After moving back here (from Chicago) in 2013, I knew I wanted to work with sheep in an environmentally impactful way. I did some research and found a list of mentors on the Michigan Sheep Producers Association website. Jeff Buckham, a fifth-generation sheep farmer, was on this list. I cold-called Jeff to ask if I could volunteer on his farm and learn from him. We have been working together ever since.

I’ll add that I didn’t grow up on a farm or learn about farming other ways such as 4-H. But it’s become my passion, and there are many farmers in our area, like my business partner, Jeff, who are willing to share their vast knowledge.

What is so great about sheep?

Grazing animals such as sheep have been partnering with humans for centuries to improve soil and control plant growth. In the United States, grazing is being implemented for wildfire prevention, soil improvement and the sequestration of atmospheric carbon. When we created our business, there were no other sheep grazing companies like ours in Michigan.

Why not goats?

I get asked that a lot. Sheep are quiet. They keep to themselves. Sheep won’t climb trees or eat bark like goats do. Sheep mind a fence better, and they provide us with their wool and meat.
What are some examples of local land stewardship services your sheep have provided?
We started back in 2018 doing small backyards and since then grew to include municipal projects. The City of Kalamazoo Parks & Recreation Department hired us to mow the tall grass and brush at Mayors Riverfront Park, behind the Growlers’ stadium. Our sheep (also) removed bush plants, invasives and other nuisance plants from the steep hill at Woods Lake Park. At Spring Valley Park, we targeted three different areas around the lake edge with our sheep to remove wild grapevine and poison ivy so that guests could have better access to the lake.

How do you contain sheep when they are working?

We have over 100 sheep, and we usually bring 40 to 60 with us, depending on the size of the project. We bring enough animals to ensure even mowing of grass and thorough brush or invasive species removal within a one- to two-day period. The animals are contained in ElectroNet fencing that is powered by a solar charger. The fencing is flexible and can go around anything — trees or a rose bush the property owner wants to protect. The fencing also protects the sheep from predators. As a friendly reminder, folks that see our sheep working during summer in parks and other public properties should keep in mind that our fencing is electrified.

Two additional things I’m often asked: Yes, the sheep stay overnight in the fenced area if the project requires more than a day. And, yes, it’s OK if they get rained on.

If someone wanted to hire your sheep, how would they do that?
Each project is unique. When contacted, we come out to see the property in question and then create a quote. Pricing is affected by factors such as existing fencing, distance from our farm and length of time the sheep will be working. We love meeting new clients and providing an environmentally friendly option for our community’s landscaping needs.

What are your future plans for Tending Tilth?

Sheep can easily access areas around solar panels. We’d love to expand our grazing services to solar farms. And I’m in the early stages of training our English shepherd, Murphy, to be a herding dog.

— Interview by Donna McClurkan, edited for length and clarity

Donna McClurkan

Donna is a Kalamazoo-based freelance writer and climate activist.

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