The Before–or IF WE CAN, YOU CAN
We have now been in business 9 years – which makes this story a diary… nine years ago, if you had told me that I’d be sitting at a computer working on my first web pages ever, I’d have questioned your sanity. Especially web pages about sheep. What God has planned… This is where we were:
My husband, Tom, was suffering from a bad case of downsizing at his job – anyone who’s experienced this will relate to the feelings of anger and fear and (sometimes) despair that attack a person’s ego. We are indeed a “throw away” society, but it doesn’t build self-confidence to know that you’re the “garbage” being pitched today. More demoralizing was the company “fix-it” of “work three months, lay-off two, work three months, …”. There is no closure, and no “movin’ on”. Emotions run high, savings run out, and “where do we go from here?” included (on really bad days) leave the farm to the Bank and move somewhere else. I was employed at a local cheese factory, but I knew my days were numbered. I had suffered a serious injury to my right arm and shoulder which became chronic as I used it day after day. It became apparent to me that I would never heal unless I found a less repetitive job, but the question was, what? At the time, I couldn’t even open a jar of pickles or stir a batch of brownies. Who wants to hire someone with those qualifications? The worst part was my feeling of worthlessness/inadequacy – if you’re an over-achiever, you’ll know what I mean. Nothing quite like negative emotions feeding on negative emotions: Tom and I were quite a pair.
One of the reasons that we weren’t concerned about Buddy is that we weren’t concerned about much of anything any more. Since we hadn’t made up our minds whether or not to keep our property, we just stopped doing things around the place. In hindsight, I’m not proud of this, but at the time it didn’t make sense to put a lot of work into a place we weren’t going to be at to enjoy. We let the fences go, stopped chopping weeds, filled the barns up with junk, let our neighbor use our paddocks as a dead car graveyard, and withdrew into a useless state of misery. It may be true that things can always be worse, but to live without Hope is as close to the bottom as you can get. Add to the mix our middle son, Buddy, who was the Poster Child for “laid back”. It seemed that he was going to make a career out of Playstation 2 and Sleeping In – neither of which pays very well. “What do you want to be when you grow up” never got a response; he had no idea what he wanted, and maybe had no intention of “growing up”. Since he rarely showed his face upstairs except at meal times, and never added to the family turmoil, we just resigned ourselves to having a large child living in our basement forever, sort of like a feral gerbil.
Meanwhile, out in California, our Silent Partner (Jean Hayden, my fabulous mother) was worrying about the state of the union (ours), and wondering when we were going to get it together. After seven years on The Coast, she was looking for a way to be more involved with her Family, who all live in the Midwest. She asked me if there was any reason why our acreage wasn’t paying for itself – “Because we’re all in a blue funk of depression,” didn’t seem like a good answer, so I told her I’d do some research online to see what types of small livestock might generate a decent return. She said, “Let me know.” You know what happened next; at least you think you do.
This is the part you know: I saw Icelandic sheep on the Internet. I went to the ISBONA website. I read enough about the breed to become interested, so we contacted a “local” breeder, and took a long Sunday drive to meet the creatures face-to-face. Let me say that March in the Midwest isn’t the best month to view Icelandics for the first time. The scenery is gray and dreary, most barnyards are wet and muddy, and most flocks have been shorn for lambing, so you don’t get the full effect of an animal “in the fleece”.
In spite of all this, it was love at first sight!
The first thing that struck me was the size of the animals. I thought, “Wow, I could handle one of those by myself if I had to!” This should be a major deal to you ladies out there that may be the primary shepherd. The second thing I thought was “Wow, look at all the colors !” This was a major deal because it dawned on me that these sheep had a marketable product growing on their backs – I had never raised sheep for fleece before. The third thing I thought was “Wow, those horns are AWESOME, just like a Dall sheep! I could do some cool stuff with those horns!” THEN I saw a day-old Icelandic lamb, and I knew I just had to have some of my own.
The After or Coming Back to Life
This is the part you may not know about; how the desire to raise picture-perfect animals made us rouse ourselves, shake off The Blues, and work to try and make our farm the perfect frame. BUT FIRST (and HIGHLY recommended) I read everything I could find about Icelandic sheep and how to care for them. Two of the finest sources of information for me were The Lavender Fleece and Tongue River Farms. I found both shepherds to be honest and thorough in dispensing their accumulated knowledge. I also went to the Southram Station website (links on the ISBONA site under “Resources”) and read everything I could about Iceland genetics, carcass grading, and overall performance measurements. I learned about the AI Super Rams, and read lots and lots of pedigrees (find these in the CLRC registry, also a link on ISBONA). I went and looked at as many flocks of Icelandics as I could reasonably drive to, and discovered that there’s a lot of variation in size and quality in the North American flocks. I went to a Fiber Festival to see just what was involved in producing a marketable fleece. I learned about health issues; why breeders use biosecurity to prevent such diseases as OPP, CL, and Scrapie. I also found out that F1 generation lambs (those from an AI sire) could only be sold into a flock that was registered with the Federal Scrapie Program. (This is no longer true, which is a blessing!)
Our first girls came from Jordandal Farms in Argyle, Wisconsin. Since my goal was to have sheep on the farm to qualify for the Scrapie Program, I didn’t really care what we bought, as long as they had horns and were CLRC registered. Carrie only had a few animals for sale, as she was expanding her flock to accommodate her growing gourmet meat business. From the ewes that she had available, we chose a black grey, a moorit grey, and a set of twin lambs, moorit and moorit spotted.
As it turns out, we did much better than we had a right to, given the fact that I had yet to spend time learning the difference between an average animal and a superior one (check out “How does your flock compare?” on The Lavender Fleece website). Our Fab Four, though not quite Southram quality, were nice gals with bloodlines worth keeping in the flock. One thing for sure – purchase the best animals you can afford: You won’t always be fortunate enough to find a “Carrie”. Remember, too, that breeding unimproved ewes to exceptional rams can bring an average flock up to par in no time. We had tremendous results our first season due for the most part to our foundation herdsires.
Everyone in our family pitched in to help make our Icelandic business a success: My husband, Tom, provided so much muscle cleaning, constructing, loading, unloading, sheep wrangling, and fence-stretching – he might not have been making money, but he sure was working! Our oldest daughter, Heather, helped with painting, marking fiberglass fence posts and designing these web pages. Her husband, Pat, used his days off from the Marine Corp to help with fencing and brush removal. Our oldest son, Evan, helped out with building materials and moral support. Buddy really enjoyed being a shepherd, and he had hands-on in every project we undertook to get our place back on its feet, and often beat us out the door in the morning. It’s not work if it’s something you love.
Our youngest daughter, Kelsey, baby-sat for our grand daughters Aubrianna and Talia when necessary, kept the house livable while we were mucking around in the barn, and helped with all things lamb-related. Our youngest son, Tyler, was on weed patrol and fire-stirring duty, not to mention handling the job of Step and Fetch It with good humor. He also turned out to be the best sheep-wrangler ever. Grandma Jean (-the silent one) kept us going with great marketing ideas and infusions of tax-deductible funds when necessary. She even taught me how to knit!