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).
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.
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.
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.
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.