Montague man lives a double life with sheep, goats and chamber music

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 02-23-2023 10:58 AM

One of my favorite things about life in the country (perhaps life everywhere, but it’s more obvious in the country!) is that hardly anyone has just one occupation.

I myself have six jobs. When I was first asked to be on the television program “Mass Appeal,” I said I would be happy to talk about my writing … or cook on camera … or sing. Or maybe do all three.

The producer huffily informed me that as far as the program was concerned, a person could only have one identity. I finally agreed to choose one aspect of my life to highlight, but I didn’t understand the logic of having to make that decision.

Mark Fraser of Montague is a kindred spirit. He is both a musician and a farmer, and he has no intention of choosing between the two.

I first got to know Mark in 2014 when he was named the new executive artistic director of Mohawk Trail Concerts. Based in Charlemont, the summer concert series had been run since 1970 by its founders, Arnold and Ruth Black.

Arnie died in 2000, and by the 2010s Ruth was ready to retire. She chose Mark as her successor and the transition in leadership was remarkably smooth.

Mark is a Canadian-American cellist with an engaging, breezy personality. He also raises sheep and a few goats. He prides himself on his humane treatment of the animals and on his earth-friendly grazing practices. The latter include a forest pasture that keeps strong trees and eliminates weak ones.

When I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, his lambing season was just about to start. He had 21 ewes getting ready to give birth, and he expected 35 to 40 baby lambs.

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“It’s an exciting time, and there’s a lot of apprehension,” he said of lambing. “It’s a very vulnerable time for the ewes.”

Mark once had quite a number of goats and used to run a “rent a goat” service for people hoping to clear their land. He found that the goats were a lot of work and ended up being susceptible to all sorts of parasites so he eventually phased them out.

Still, he said, “I have a couple of goats for thrills and chills. There’s nothing more entertaining than goat kids.”

When the goats grow up, he generally takes them to a field and gently kills them. “I can’t send them off in a truck,” he told me. “[This way] I really don’t think they know that anything has happened.”

He keeps the goat meat in the freezer and eats it over the winter. At a recent Mohawk Trail Concerts board meeting, his goat curry garnered rave reviews.

I asked Mark how he balanced animal husbandry with musicianship. He noted that there have been one or two times when his schedules have been in conflict, notably last winter when he had an engagement to play his cello in Florida at the beginning of lambing season.

His wife, Daphne Bye, was forced to play midwife to several sheep all by herself.

Generally, however, he manages to avoid those conflicts. Mohawk Trail Concerts is primarily a summer series. And the benefits of having two occupations outweigh the risks.

“I think it makes me a better musician to have balance in my life, hanging out with animals,” he mused. “For me, it’s therapeutic. There are many late afternoons when the sun’s getting low, and I just go out and sit with these sheep when they’re munching on the grass.”

Mohawk Trail Concerts will run this year from June 24 to July 22, primarily at the Federated Church on Route 2 in Charlemont. A special tribute to founder Arnold Black’s centennial year is being planned for the fall. For updates and details, visit mohawktrailconcerts.org.

Meanwhile, here is Mark Fraser’s recipe for goat curry. He likes to pair it with yogurt made from a female goat on his farm; he calls that pairing “mother and child reunion.”

Mark notes that if people don’t have access to goat meat, they may make the curry with lamb or beef. Nevertheless, he argues, “There’s a special consistency to goat that lends itself to curry like no other meat.”

The Cello-Playing Farmer’s Goat Curry

Ingredients:

Two pounds goat meat (Mark used the leg most recently), cut into one-inch cubes

A small amount of oil as needed for frying

Two large onions, cut up

Garlic to taste

One can or jar (28 ounces) of diced tomatoes

Lots of curry powder (Mark uses up to 1/4 cup)

Salt and pepper to taste

Two tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

Instructions:

Brown the chunks of goat meat in a cast iron pot or skillet in a little oil. Remove the meat from the pan and set it aside.

In the same pot, brown the onions. As they become translucent, add the garlic, and sauté briefly.

Place the vegetables and the meat in a slow cooker. Add the tomatoes, the salt and pepper, the curry powder, and the vinegar.

Cook on low for “a good 5 or 6 hours.” “Never open the lid,” Mark reminds fellow cooks

Serve with rice and (if desired) chutney and yogurt. Serves 5 to 6 healthy eaters.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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