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.
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.
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.