Although there's no cure for multiple sclerosis, Nancy McMullen, of Darlington, says she has found an effective therapy in raising sheep — sheep that will be featured in a competition next month designed to promote local farms and the healthy eating of their products.
"This farm is my therapy," the owner of the nearly 15-acre All Saints Farm said.
McMullen and her partner, Dee Beyer, raise about 60 sheep on the fenced-in pastures; the sheep are minded by five sheepdogs.
The retired nurse, who worked in the recovery room at the University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, has been running her farm for about 15 years.
She started out raising horses, then cattle and eventually sheep, which graze in the grassy fenced-in pastures adjacent to cornfields and Darlington's Francis Silver Park.
"The animals don't wait; they want to eat now, so if you don't feel good and you're laying in bed, sorry for your luck," McMullen said.
McMullen was diagnosed with MS, a disease of the central nervous system, 10 years ago. She operates the farm and manages the sheep flock with help from medication and Beyer, who is also her romantic partner.
"We fell in love over the sheep," she said.
Farm to Chef Maryland
Their lamb will be the All Saints entry in the 2014 Farm to Chef Maryland competition, during which 33 farmers from across the state will be paired with chefs who will cook a dish based on the products provided by the farmers.
All Saints is one of about 10 Harford and Cecil counties farms taking part in the competition, which is scheduled for Sept. 29 at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
McMullen has been paired with Scott Hines, the chef de cuisine for Heavy Seas Alehouse of Baltimore. Hines visited the farm recently to meet McMullen and Beyer.
"I'm really tickled that we got paired with a place that also makes small craft beer," Beyer said.
Proceeds from Farm to Chef benefit Days of Taste, which is a "community outreach program" for The American Institute of Wine & Food. Days of Taste is a cooperative effort of chefs and farmers to teach elementary school students about how their food gets from the farm to the table and promote healthy eating with locally-raised products.
"That was the buy-in for me, to bring something like this to Harford County, so kids grow up understanding the value of our family farms," Sherifa Clarke, a member of the Farm to Chef planning committee, said.
Clarke, who visited the farm with Hines, is also the general manager and co-owner of the Laurrapin Grille in Havre de Grace. She and her husband, Bruce, own the restaurant.
"The kids are our future, so if they don't learn this now, our family farms are going to be gone," she said.
Other participating Harford County farms include Granova Poultry Partners of Forest Hill, Level Farm Beef of Churchville and Deer Meadow Farm of Aberdeen. Chefs from some Harford County restaurants are also participating, including Laurrapin and Pairings Bistro of Bel Air.
Clarke said the chefs must create their dishes based only on products available at the farms.
"There's nothing better than a bunch of chefs trying to impress each other," she said.
More information about Farm to Chef and a full list of participants can be found online at http://www.farmtochefmd.com.
Working the sheep
Beyer and McMullen showed Hines how they work the flock with the dogs and feed the sheep their daily supplement of feed pellets.
"[It's] a very small amount of supplement that has vitamins, minerals and some extra protein," McMullen explained. "They don't get enough to sustain them, but it's just a little boost."
McMullen stressed that the sheep are "grass finished," meaning they subsist on the grass in the pasture rather than living in pens and just eating animal feed products such as corn.
"That's the way it was meant to be; you finish them on grass," McMullen explained. "It tends to be way healthier for the human and the sheep."
One of their sheepdogs sprinted after several sheep, its tongue hanging out, on commands from McMullen to herd them.
"Come on, you lambs," McMullen called out as she coaxed the lambs to the feeding trough.
Beyer and McMullen also showed Hines and Clarke their herbs, such as the mint that will also be a component of Hines' lamb dish, as well as eggs that will be part of the dish, and gave them samples of cooked lamb.
Hines has been cooking for 10 years, and he participated in last year's Farm to Chef competition.
He said the lamb will be the primary ingredient in a lamb Bolognese dish with house-made garganelli pasta and an egg-based sabayon made from Heavy Seas' Gold Ale, Parmesan cheese and mint.
"It'll be like a savory, eggy cheese sauce for the lamb," he said.
Hines said sabayon is typically made with wine, but he is using Heavy Seas beer in this case.
"I'm really excited about it, anything these little farmers can do to teach kids where their food comes from," McMullen said of the competition.