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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

Icelandic Sheep
Icelandic Sheep

On pasture.

Icelandic Sheep

by Laurie Ball-Gisch of The Lavender Fleece, Midland, MI

bring the generations together – and keep an old farmer young

I believe that the passion to farm is a heritable genetic trait. I also believe it can skip generations and appear again out of nowhere. My own parents and grandparents were not farmers, but most of my great-grandparents and great great grands, going back through the generations, were farmers. But I did not grow up on a farm and there was nothing in my background to indicate that by the time I would be in my 40s I would become a full time shepherdess.

Icelandic Sheep

Willie (& friend).

My husband’s grandparents farmed and his father, Wilfred (Willie, a.k.a. “Papa”) Gisch has farmed his entire life. As a child he would be responsible for hitching up the horses in the early morning hours, as well as doing the other myriad chores found on any farm in the first quarter of the 1900s. As a young married man, Willie had saved enough money, after renting land for a number of years, to purchase his own 160 acres near Austin, Minnesota. For many years he farmed sheep, dairy cattle, chickens and hogs. He was also busy growing corn, soybeans and hay. He farmed the land there his entire adult life and in later years told us that he would never leave his land. After he formally “retired,” he let a friend keep some cattle on his prime pastures and he share-cropped the rest of the farm, which provided a modest, but steady income for him in retirement.

About Icelandic Sheep

Icelandic sheep are a triple use sheep: the meat is very mild, true gourmet quality; the fleece is extremely versatile, with its primitive dual coat; and the ewes can be very milky and are especially suited to farmstead cheese making. We have found our flock to be hardy and efficient grazers, excellent for farms that want to raise sheep on only pasture and hay. The sheep are quite beautiful, coming in a myriad of colors and patterns. They are friendly, curious and there is even a genetic strain of the breed that is highly intelligent – called leadersheep.

There is an appealing romance to the lore of the origin of the Icelandic sheep. Because they were brought to Iceland by the Vikings in 874-1100 AD and isolated there, the genetic makeup of Icelandic sheep is one of the purest left in the world today. The Icelandic sheep is of the North European Short Tail Race of sheep, related to the Finnsheep, Romanovs, Shetland, Norwegian, Spelsau and the Gotland sheep.

Because of the harsh conditions in Iceland, the breed long ago developed very efficient rumens. In fact they can gain too much weight when exposed to a management style that uses heavy graining. Lambs grow quickly, and often reach slaughter weight right off of pasture. Icelandic sheep are a medium size sheep, making them easy to handle. Another bonus to having Icelandic sheep is that their tails are naturally short so there is no need to dock tails. Icelandics generally will breed their first year as lambs; the small, vigorous lambs make lambing time easy for the shepherd. The ewes make excellent mothers, and often twin or even have triplets. Icelandic sheep can be horned, polled, or scurred. Their horns are non-threatening – indeed they make good handles for catching and hanging on. For more information about Icelandic sheep, please visit our website at www.lavenderfleece.com.

I came to sheep farming from a background in the arts – with a passion for spinning and weaving. When we were able to leave our house in town to buy our small farm, a former dairy operation, I had no idea that the desire to have a couple of fiber animals would turn into full time shepherding. I have been a graphic designer and an art educator in my past lives, but now I am a full-time shepherdess (as well as mother/farmer/gardener/businesswoman). I had discovered Icelandic sheep, and was completely enamored of their beauty, their hardiness and their intelligence (see side bar).

When we transitioned from our life in town to our new life on the farm, my father-in-law and I now had something more in common than just the children (my daughters – his granddaughters). He would come for 3-4 visits a year (we live in Michigan), staying always for two weeks at a time. He thought that my raising sheep was a great thing and we now had much to talk about and projects to give vision to. Although he wasn’t initially familiar with Icelandic sheep, he had raised Cheviot, Suffolk and Columbia sheep in his early farming years and was supportive of my choice.

Our farmstead had seven old dilapidated outbuildings. They became projects for Willie to work on each time he visited. Over a period of four years the old chicken coop became my studio and a greenhouse was added to the back (I also specialize in growing lavender). The old three-story dairy barn was taken down board by board and beam by beam and collapsed into a heap of lumber. By sheer will power and sweat, Willie and my husband rebuilt the barn into a safe and usable building to provide storage for hay and shelter for the sheep. All of the buildings eventually got new roofs and repairs, as well as a new coat of paint.

About the time that the major projects were done, including fencing, Willie teased me that after he turned 80 he wasn’t going to build me any more barns. So the summer of his 80th birthday, I challenged him with this question: “Do you think you can build me an 8-sided aviary for some peafowl?” He said “Draw me a picture of it and I can build it.” Sure enough by the next day he had measured off the space and gone to get lumber. The summer that Willie had his 81st birthday followed a hard winter for him. His best friend back in Minnesota gave up on farming due to ill health and sold his place, moving into a small house in town. With most of his farming comrades dead or facing changing lifestyles, Willie was becoming more and more isolated. Ending his visits here to Michigan to see his only family (my husband and I and our three daughters) were more difficult for all of us. We were acutely aware of the passage of time and the time in between visits seemed too long. Willie was still driving the 13 hour trip by himself, making it in two days each time. We had asked him for many years to consider moving to Michigan to be near us, even inviting him to live here in our home. But his many years of independence and living alone were not something that he was willing to give up.

That same summer a small house with some acreage came on the market just across the road from our farm. By coincidence, the realtor was holding an “open house” on the weekend before Willie was to head home from his summer visit. I suggested that we should go to the open house to check out the place and teasingly said “Wouldn’t it be great if you could be our neighbor?” We headed over, went in the front door and were greeted by the realtor who handed us the fact sheets. Uninterested in the papers, or the house, Willie and my husband headed straight through the house and out the back door. They walked directly to the old run-down outbuildings, which were overgrown with weeds and briars, and then proceeded to walk the property line. When they came back into the house, Willie surprised us all when he announced “Let’s make an offer.” For my husband and my children, it was a dream come true – to have “Papa” living here in Michigan – and better yet, to be our neighbor! By October, Willie had moved into his new house and within the first week he had already fenced the first acre of land and started to rebuild the outbuildings readying them for sheep. We are grateful that we did not have to sell the acreage in Minnesota and the land there can still generate an income for Willie, even though he lives here now.

We initially took him over a small breeding group of Icelandic sheep and after breeding season, he now houses 6 rams in one area and 16 ewes in another area. He was busy all winter building lambing pens, feeders and fencing in more land when the weather permitted. His first lambs are due around March 28th and he and I are getting his supplies ready.

Icelandic Sheep

Farm view, September 2004.

I am enjoying learning some of the “old time” remedies that Willie used back in the 1940s and 1950s when he raised sheep. When we were talking about bottle lambs (which I try to avoid at all costs) he said to me “Well, you take some kerosene and rub it on the nose of the ewe and on the lamb. It will take away her sense of smell and she’ll accept her lamb back.” I think he is secretly hoping there will be some bottle lambs this year; I think I’m going to have to make sure he doesn’t “steal” one of the lambs himself!

His secret “ingredient” for growing out the sheep is just plain old oats. I don’t grain my flock, but the lucky sheep who are at Willie’s farm are getting spoiled by a little handful of oats every morning. He is a very astute observer of animals, with an incredibly soft heart. As he says himself, he hates to see any animal suffer for any reason. He recently came over and said “I think that black buck is blind.” I questioned him more about why he thought so and when I had time to go over and observe the ram closer, we noted that the one eye was very swollen, almost looking like it was coming out of the socket and indeed, the ram was not able to see. Because of the nature of the swollen eye, it looked like he had been hit in the face, so we decided to treat him accordingly (there were no signs of pinkeye). The next morning Willie reported that the ram’s eye was not protruding as much and that he now flinched and turned away when Willie put his hand in front of his face. He was no longer blind.

Icelandic Sheep

It’s been over 50 years since Willie had sheep of his own. He retired from farming about 10 years ago, selling off his equipment and cattle. But now, appproaching his 82nd year, he is once again a shepherd. In addition to the sheep, he also has two guard llamas, two Icelandic sheep dogs and a flock of chickens. On the weekends our daughters (ages 6 and 7) like to have “sleep overs” at Papa’s house. Their morning routine consists of Papa making them bacon and eggs and then they all head outside to do the chores. The children feed the llamas out of their hands and enjoy helping Papa take care of the chickens and the sheep.

I never dreamed when I started my farm flock that I would one day have a full time partner in shepherding. While my husband is extremely supportive and helpful, he does work full-time (as a chemist). Now with “Papa” Willie as my neighbor, I have somebody nearby all the time to consult with, to share the ups and downs, the tears and the laughter over the antics of our sheep and our children, as they all interact together. Additionally, having Papa so close allows us some freedom to leave the farm occasionally because we have a very trusted and faithful shepherd to call upon. I feel like I have come full circle – to my own farming heritage – while building a lifestyle for my family that is connected to the land and to animals.

Icelandic Sheep

Spotted lamb.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Low Impact Ranching

Low Impact Ranching

by:
from issue:

This kind of low-impact management has yielded visible results for Rose who can display flourishing pasture grasses, healthy cattle, and firm banks in his riverside pasture. “I am just a detail oriented person and one of those farm boys who always likes to have a project,” Rose said. “I am trying to get the most out of my land and efforts and I really enjoy seeing the positive outcomes of a finished project.”

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

Such a One Horse Outfit

Such a One Horse Outfit

by:
from issue:

One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

Congo Farm Project

Congo Farm Project

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from issue:

I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.

Food Energy The Fragile Link Between Resources and Population

Food-Energy: the Fragile Link Between Resources & Population

by:
from issue:

Now, after a one lifetime span of almost free energy and resultant copious food, the entire world faces the imminent decline (and eventual demise) of finite, fossil-fuel capital. Without fossil fuels, food can no longer be produced in one area and shipped thousands of miles to market. To suggest that the world will be able to feed the UN projected population of nine billion by 2050 is totally incomprehensible in the face of declining oil.

Cayuse Vineyards

Small Farm, USA: Cayuse Vineyards

by:
from issue:

How did the grape find itself here on the outskirts of Milton? If you ask one man, Christophe Baron, the answer is simple. “It’s the cobblestone. (The ground) reminds me of home”. For Christophe, home refers to France and the stone littered earth from which many famous French wines grow. Hailing from a family of vigneron champenois, Mr. Baron came upon this corner of the state by chance, saw its signature geology, and decided to establish his domaine right here in northeast Oregon.

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

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from issue:

Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

Cuban Agriculture

Cuban Agriculture

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In December of 1979, Mary Jo and I spent two weeks traveling in Cuba on a “Farmer’s Tour of Cuba”. The tour was a first of its kind. It was organized in the U.S. by farmers, was made up of U.S. farmers and agriculturally oriented folks, and was sponsored in Cuba by A.N.A.P., the National Association of Independent Farmers. As we learned about farming we also learned how the individuals, farms, and communities we visited fit into the greater social and economic structure of Cuba.

Cultivating Questions Going Single

Cultivating Questions: Going Single

Going single did not occur to us until we began receiving questions from prospective teamsters who felt it would be more manageable and economical to get started with a single horse than a team. After 29 years of market gardening with two or more horses, our impetus to try out one-horse farming was not a question of management or economy, but due to the radically diverging horse temperaments on our farm.

The Farmer and the Horse

The Farmer & The Horse

In New Jersey — land of The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and the Turnpike — farmland is more expensive than anywhere else. It’s not an easy place to try to start a career as a farmer. But for a new generation of farmers inspired by sustainability, everything seems possible. Even a farm powered by draft horses.

Cultivating Questions A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Cultivating Questions: A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Forestry

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After 70 plus years of industrial logging, the world’s forests are as degraded and diminished as its farmlands, or by some estimates even more so. And this is a big problem for all of us, because the forests of the world do much more than supply lumber, Brazil nuts, and maple syrup. Farmlands produce food, a basic need to be sure, but forests are responsible for protecting and purifying the air, water and soil which are even more basic.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT