Photos by Annie Norling and Brian Weir
By Annie Norling
A career working on a hill with a sweeping view of Mount Rainier is a far cry from the closed walls of a medical office. However, Sherwin Ferguson decided she belonged with the goats.
Ferguson was born in Coventry, England, or as she says, “Robin Hood land,” in 1957. Her family moved to the United States when she was eight-years-old.
She attended the University of Pennsylvania and received her masters in nursing from Loyola University Chicago. Ferguson attended Pacific Lutheran University and graduated with a post-masters family nurse practitioner degree in 1999.
Since graduation, she has practiced as a nurse practitioner at the PLU Health Center. “I love the education part about being a nurse practitioner,” she said.
“She always handled them [patients] with compassion,” said Doreen Splinter, clinic coordinator of the Health Center.
Audry Kahlstrom, a nurse practitioner at the Health Center, worked with Ferguson for the past year. “Sherwin is awesome with the PLU students,” she said.
Kahlstrom’s sentiments are echoed by Jadie Green, a medical assistant at the Health Center, who worked with Ferguson for three years. “She understands real life and does not put herself above the students,” she said, “I think that comes from having kids of her own.”
After the director of the Health Center stepped down in 2010, Ferguson worked as the interim director until January of this year when she decided to devote her time to her farm in the foothills of Mount Rainier.
“I knew from the time I was little that outdoors is where I belong,” said Ferguson. She believes she got her love for animals from her mother, who grew up on a farm in Ireland.
The impetus for the farm occurred when Ferguson and her family moved to a 127-acre property near Mount Rainier. She fell in love with the land and the pastoral beauty and wanted to protect it. “I love the trees, I love the agriculture,” she said, “if I care about how animals are treated and land and trees, then I need to do it.”
Even though she had no farm experience, Ferguson’s farm began with a few chickens and a vegetable garden. It quickly grew to include 43 goats, 28 chickens, 8 llamas, and 6 sheep. The llamas protect both the goats, raised for dairy, and the sheep, raised for meat.
The compassion Ferguson shows in her nursing practice carries over to her farm. Her love for her animals is obvious. Each goat has a distinct and unique name. She speaks to her animals as though they are her children and each kid, or baby goat, is bottle-fed. “Having animals is kind of like having a lot of kids,” she said.
“Sherwin loves her goats! She loves her whole farm, but especially her goats,” said Emily Bianconi, a fellow nurse practitioner at the Health Center.
Ferguson’s training as a nurse practitioner is very helpful when taking care of her animals. She can administer shots and uses the same assessment skills to check the health of the animals. For example, she saw that one of her goats was not acting normal. She listened to its lungs and knew right away the goat had pneumonia. When the veterinarian checked the animal, he confirmed her diagnosis.
Currently, Ferguson’s farm consists of separate, temporary pens for young female goats, does, and bucks. Each pen has at least one shed for shelter and protection. In January, the goats will be moved to a large barn on a different part of the property. The new barn will protect does and their kids from the winter cold and predators.
One of the sheds serves as a temporary milking parlor. Ferguson milks the does twice-a-day. Though originally hand milking, she now practices bucket milking using a conventional milking machine. The new barn will contain a milking parlor and another building will be built for making cheese. Ferguson’s farm will be a Grade A dairy, Mountain Lodge Farm, by February 2012. Currently she is developing her product. “It is a big science experiment,” she said.
The cheese produced will not be organic. Though the goats are fed organic feed, Ferguson chooses to use antibiotics on sick animals. Her goal is to run the farm as naturally as possible, but she will not let an animal die. Ultimately, Ferguson hopes to expand her dairy to include sheep, so as to offer a wide variety of cheeses.
In the past few years, people have moved toward locally produced and organic food. According to the Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources, there are nine certified organic farms in Pierce County and around 800 statewide as of 2009.
Ferguson is a member of Pierce County Tilth. Tilth was started in 1977 as a farmer’s cooperative. For Ferguson, this organization is a way for farmers to come together and support each other.
Eventually, Ferguson hopes to use her farm as a way to educate people about the environment and sustainable living. Ferguson’s face lights up as she describes her “dream.” She will create an agricultural tourism destination where people will come stay in rustic cabins, each with a chicken and a goat. Every morning a pack llama will deliver food from the farm. “The best way to educate is to bring them in and let them see it,” Ferguson said.
Most importantly, Ferguson tries to imitate the natural environment of the animals on her farm. For example, she takes the goats on browse walks where they forage for shrubs, blackberries, and other plants. “This is what goats would be doing in their natural environment,” she said with a smile.
On these browse walks, the goats are free to roam, but they do not stray far from the herd. However, they have minds of their own when it is time to go back into the pens. As the eldest of nine children, Ferguson knows how difficult it is to wrangle a herd of kids. At first, she tried to control where they wandered, but quickly learned that it was impossible. “My attitude is I just need to listen to the goats,” she said.
In the future, Ferguson will raise pigs. Pigs will eat the extra whey, a byproduct of the cheese-making process. In order to be sustainable, she wants to reduce waste produced by the farm while respecting the life of the animals and making good use of what they produce. She wants her animals to live happy, healthy lives.
Ferguson will continue to volunteer at the Health Center occasionally, while she continues to expand the farm.
“Sherwin is a very passionate person,” Splinter said, “her animals are very lucky as were her students here at the Health Center.”