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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 PDT

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

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

On-Farm Meat Processing

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering.

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.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Farm Manure

Farm Manure

Naturally there is great variation in manure according to the animals it is made by, the feeding and bedding material, and the manner in which it is kept. Different analyses naturally shows different results and the tables here given serve only as a guide or index to the various kinds. The manure heap, by the way, is no place for old tin cans, bottles, glass, and other similar waste material.

Mayfield Farm

Mayfield Farm, New South Wales, Australia

by:
from issue:

Mayfield Farm is a small family owned and operated mixed farm situated at 1150 m above sea level on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales, Australia. Siblings, Sandra and Ian Bannerman, purchased the 350 acre property in October, 2013, and have converted it from a conventionally operated farm to one that is run on organic principles. Additional workers on the farm include Janette, Ian’s wife, and Jessica, Ian’s daughter.

No Starving Children!

You’d never be able to harvest the broccoli or the hay or milk the cows or make the cheese if it were subject to government process. Not only are our industrial farms too big…

Chicken Guano: Top-Notch Fertilizer

Whoever thought I’d be singing the praises of chicken poop? I am, and I’m not the only one. Chickens are walking nitrogen-rich manure bins.

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

by:
from issue:

Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on.

LittleField Notes Seed Irony

LittleField Notes: Seed Irony

by:
from issue:

They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there the next summer?

Cultivating Questions A Diversity of Cropping Systems

Cultivating Questions: A Diversity of Cropping Systems

As a matter of convenience, we plant all of our field vegetables in widely spaced single rows so we can cultivate the crops with one setup on the riding cultivator. Row cropping makes sense for us because we are more limited by labor than land and we don’t use irrigation for the field vegetables. As for the economics of planting produce in work horse friendly single rows, revenue is comparable to many multiple row tractor systems.

Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

The Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

by:
from issue:

In the winter of 2011, Daniel mentioned a fourteen-year-old student of his who had spent a whole month eating only foods gathered from the wild. “Could we go for two days on the hand-harvested food we have here?’ he asked. “Let’s give it a try!” I responded with my usual enthusiasm. We assembled the ingredients on the table. Everything on that table had passed through our hands. We knew all the costs and calories associated with it. No hidden injustice, no questionable pesticides. We felt joy at living in such an edible world.

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

Laying Out Fields For Plowing

Laying Out Fields For Plowing

from issue:

Before starting to plow a field much time can be saved if the field is first staked out in uniform width lands. Methods that leave dead furrows running down the slope should be avoided, as water may collect in them and cause serious erosion. The method of starting at the sides and plowing around and around to finish in the center of the field will, if practiced year after year, create low areas at the dead furrows.

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

A Tour of Various Draft Farms

Amidst all of the possibility that is out there, all of the options and uncertainties, it helps to remember that there is also a strong community in the draft-farming world. There are a great many like-minded yet still diverse people working with draft horses and ready to share their experiences. What will serve us well within this great variety of farms and farmers is to keep in touch, to learn from one another’s good ideas and mistakes and to keep on farming with draft power.

To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig

Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew

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.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

by:
from issue:

At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

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