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Raising Sheep for Lamb & Wool ft. Cloverworks Farm

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Show Notes

Join Nicole and Katie with Cloverworks Farm as they discuss raising sheep for lamb and wool!

What You’ll Learn

  • How Katie began raising sheep
  • Marketing techniques for lamb and wool separately, and how to appeal to both customer groups
  • How Katie uses all parts of the animal to minimize waste and maximize profit
  • Pasture based sheep husbandry focusing on animal welfare

Our Guest

In today’s episode, we are joined by Katie, owner of Cloverworks Farm. Katie left her desk job to start her sheep farming enterprise. Along the way she overcame several challenges, including learning how to market sheep and lamb separately.

Cloverworks Farms raises pasture based sheep for wool and lamb that is Animal Welfare Approved.

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    Announcer: Welcome to the Backyard Bounty Podcast from where we talk about all things backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living, and more. And now, here is your host Nicole.

    Nicole: Hello everyone, and welcome to Backyard Bounty. I'm your host Nicole and today we're owned by Katie. Katie is the owner of Cloverworks Farm in Vermont. Katie thank you so much for joining us.

    Katie: Thank you so much for having me Nicole. I'm really excited to chat with you this afternoon and talk a little bit about what I do on my sheep farm.

    Nicole: Yeah, I'm super excited to have you. I know that we've been chatting a little bit already and you have so much information and I'm so excited for everybody to hear. So maybe you could give me a little bit of a background of yourself and your farm and kind of let everybody know what you got going.

    Katie: Sure. So, I guess I would say my farming journey started when I was a little kid. We lived next to the last working farm in Keene, New Hampshire. So, every morning when they spread manure we could tell that the cows were around. But I never really had any interactions with the farm other than awareness that it existed.

    Katie: Later in life in college I became a vegetarian out of concern for animal welfare on farms. I had read a bunch of exquisite pieces and the kind of the general gist of what's floating around in the media right now about animal welfare and factory farming.

    Katie: So, I stopped eating meat and stopped eating most milk products for years and years. Then I graduated school, I went into social services, and then I burnt out really hard.

    Katie: I was not a good fit for working with humans in dire conditions and it was a very difficult time in my life. So I stepped back and a book that was ambient in the media at that time was Michael Pollan's, Omnivore Dilemma.

    Katie: It was kind of right at the recession and everybody is starting to think the society that we thought we were building has crashed really hard right now and what could a different better society look like. What can we change about what we're doing to prevent this kind of situation again.

    Katie: So, I read that book and I started to feel like maybe this was the direction I should head in. I was ready to start eating meat again. I was, as long as I could ascertain that it came from good welfare conditions.

    Katie: I had a new partner at that time and together we decided, you know what? I can keep a plant alive and you've read a few books about chicken, so we should go and work on a farm. And so we did. We answered an ad on one of the connecting young farmers to farms websites and found an organic farm with a flock of sheep and set ourselves up there.

    Katie: That's when we learned that trying to raise a couple of sheep and a few chickens and some spindly plants on a hill farm was never going to be economically viable compared to going to the booth of the farmers' market next to us on the river valley bottom farm with a crate after crate of perfect vegetables and we had our three boxes of sad peas and ...

    Katie: We planted entirely too many radishes that year and we had the stupid amount of radishes that we were trying to sell and rhubarb and other farmers are like, "Okay, nice try. You tried."

    Katie: Then we ran out of money and we were out of there and we went home and we licked our wounds. But the seed was planted, if you will, and I was really eager to try again armed with just a little bit more experience and wisdom this time.

    Katie: I think that's what it took to get us kind of up the down the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger cycle and up the side to wisdom, if you're familiar with that concept.

    Katie: So after that we homesteaded for a few more years. We split up and then I met somebody new. But in the meantime I had gone and realized before I start a farm of my own I think I need to spend a little bit more time working for somebody else's farm.

    Katie: So, we went and I worked at a goat farm in Central Vermont where we made value added products from goat's milk and I learned a lot about managing 50 goats in a dairy. It was kind of one of those farms, family farm where everybody wore every hat.

    Katie: So I milked goats and I kept veterinary records and I did health evaluations and I made the products and I marketed the products and I drove hay, move hay all around a number of our products and I called stores and pitched our product and kind of did the full gambit of running a value added small farm where you're raising animals.

    Katie: Then I come in from milking the goats and I call a client and I'm like, "Yeah, I'm just in from milking the goats but I wanted to return your call." And they're floored because they've never talked to a food producer who's not just kind of pitching the food but is also making the food.

    Katie: So, three years on the goat farm. Then I went to a large scale maple company and at the large scale maple company I had the opportunity to work with a business that had a whole lot more capital than a tiny goat farm and I got to see what it looks like to make a product and promote it in a style that's much more ... Gosh, I'm trying to think of how to describe the difference. A little less home spun and a lot more the way that Disney would promote a film.

    Katie: We had really glossy brochures and everything matched. We all had lines that we were supposed to say and kind of scripts to use and we're producing large scale amounts of maple syrup and trying to value add it by selling the story more and worrying a little bit less about exactly ...

    Katie: The product was good but it was still maple syrup to maple syrup. So we ... I learned a little bit more about marketing when you're doing it with a budget.

    Nicole: Sure.

    Katie: Then from there Matt and I finally had enough capital to buy our farm. So, in the meantime, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to put this timeline in a way that makes great sense for folks on the podcast. If I need to re-record this, we can do that.

    Nicole: It's fine. No, you're fine.

    Katie: In 2012 while I was working at the goat farm I had realized that I would really like to have my own project in addition to the project that I was working on. I think I was ... I had my own ideas and I had read enough books and I was really sure that I could manage my sheep better than some of the decisions that were made about the goats.

    Katie: In retrospect, I've learned that there are reasons that things are being done with the goats and they were probably right after all. But I was sure that I knew something that they didn't.

    Katie: So, I bought five sheep for $50 a piece, which to put in perspective that's maybe a 1991 price for sheep in 2012.

    Nicole: Sure.

    Katie: Those five sheep were from a very old shepherd out in the hills and I think he had stopped actually handling his sheep perhaps 10 years before. So, these sheep were as wild as antelope and they hated me and they wouldn't let me touch them. I think it was several months before I was able to touch the sheep that I had purchased because they wouldn't come for anything, no amount of grain, no nothing would convince these sheep that I was okay.

    Katie: One of the ewes persistently jumped out of fences and tried to lead the others to freedom. We named her jumping Janet and she was one of our first experiences eating mutton because we couldn't tame her and we couldn't stop her and she also refused to raise her lambs because she was so wild that we couldn't put her in a pen to bond with them. She'd jump out and run away.

    Katie: So, we got started in sheep and we just kept the flock small and hobby skill for a number of years. We farmed our sheep on rented land at the beginning when I was at the goat farm. There were neighbors who had some extra grasslands that no one was really using and they wanted to have it maintained. So they invited me to keep my sheep there.

    Katie: We later, when I went to work for the maple farm, we moved to another part of the state and we were in a distinctly suburban environment, but our sheep were invited to graze some open fields at an outdoor activity center. So, just picture some sheep on a field surrounded by mountains in Vermont but there's also lots of housing around them and then there's also mountain bikers kind of earnestly biking by and joggers biking by and our sheep are out there just kind of confused at all this hubbub and human activity.

    Katie: So, it was from that location that we finally came upon some capital so that we could purchase our farm and move out to the country. We knew that we wouldn't be able to afford to live in the Burlington area because prices they're very ... Reflect the fact that there are bedroom communities to the Burlington area and prices are out of control.

    Katie: So we moved to a remote part of the state of the Northeast Kingdom, which is the three Northeastern most counties in Vermont. It's a very economically depressed area. It's an area where the highland soils are not as fertile as other parts of the state. It's an area that's been kind of untouched by economic progress, I guess is the best way to say it. And it's an area that so far has been perfect for us.

    Katie: So, we've finally purchased a farm in 2017 after five years of raising the sheep on various bits of rented land. Then we were able to expand our flock from kind of a hobby scale of 10 sheep to now we have 50 ewes and the goal is to work up to 100.

    Nicole: Awesome. That seems like you've definitely had a lot of experience getting to where you are. Of course being in Vermont you kind of just assume that, I guess, everybody makes maple syrup up there. But out of all of the options that you had and your experience with the goats and the maple, why did you end up choosing sheep? Is it just because you had those ones that you started with or was there a specific reason that you're like I want sheep specifically?

    Katie: I guess that is a good question. With respect to maple syrup, the economics of actually starting a business based on maple syrup are a little bit intimidating. The place where I was working had I think more than 1,000 acres and 80,000 taps at that time.

    Katie: They now I believe have 100,000 taps. They have an army of employees to drive up the mountain and tap trees and they mostly sell wholesale and there isn't really a lot of room for retail scale maple or value added maple in the state.

    Katie: It's kind of it's a space that I would describe as occupied. So, maple I also admit that as fun as it was to learn all about maple, I am not as passionate about matching up hills in January, tapping trees as I am about a nice warm barn in January with pleasant animals in it.

    Katie: Likewise, with goats, it wasn't long into working with goats that I realized what it would take to capitalize a goat dairy that would work the way I wanted it to work.

    Katie: I wrote ... I love me some spreadsheets and I wrote out a plan for 300 goat dairy that would be a wholesale goat dairy and what size barn I'd need and what kind of parlor I'd need and I read up a lot of proposals that I had seen because there were several companies trying to encourage people to open dairies like that.

    Katie: It wasn't long before I realized that as soon as you're at 500 goats, you are running a confinement system. You can't physically move that many goats to a fresh pasture every day before they're walking five miles out and five miles back and consequently you're kind of missing all their eating time.

    Katie: The more animals you have in one dairy, the less able you are to actually physically pasture them. So, I realized that an economical number of goats to raise and husband was never going to be compatible with the pasture-based system. And something that's important to me of course, is animal welfare and I don't think that confinement is good animal welfare.

    Katie: So, I could see right away that that was not going to work. In fact, I knew I couldn't capitalize the kind of goat dairy I would want and I also saw from that farm struggled to sell their products and really promote the animal welfare side of what they were doing that fundamentally people do care about animal welfare, but they don't double the price care about animal welfare, if that makes sense.

    Nicole: Yeah.

    Katie: Animal welfare helps you tack, helps you get a fairer price to a certain extent, but it really can't ... You can't raise ... I guess I'll put it this way. Earlier we were talking about raising chickens and we were talking about the fact that animal welfare approved, the certification, does not accept Cornish cross broilers, which are the traditional current ... I'm sorry, not the traditional. They are the cutting edge meet chicken of today.

    Katie: They are the chicken where you can feed a chicken for 10 weeks and wind up with three pound breasts on each side of the chicken and this kind of mutant, metabolically compromised bird that is just a walking package of meat and doesn't do any natural chicken activities.

    Nicole: Right.

    Katie: The kinds of breeds that are acceptable in animal welfare approved system are ones that I completely agree are the only ones that can be managed in a welfare appropriate way.

    Katie: But at the same time, I can't show up at farmers' market with a three pound, $40 bird, and that's kind of the line that you can achieve with animal welfare approved versus what people will pay for.

    Katie: So I haven't figured out an economic way to do chickens, so I've kind of ... I raise them for my personal use but they're not part of my AWA program.

    Nicole: Sure.

    Katie: Something I really liked about sheep and a reason to get into sheep, one, cows are intimidating. A lot of the management strategies I learned with goats would be unwise to use in cows because fundamentally you can make a 200 pound goat do the thing that you want it to do by picking it up and moving it where you need it to be.

    Nicole: Right.

    Katie: That did not work with cows.

    Nicole: Not so much.

    Katie: And consequently you need a really different set of skills. Whereas my goat skills translated into sheep the way that if you know some Spanish, French will make sense to you. It's not a one-to-one mutually intelligible experience, but it is definitely with your base of goat knowledge you can develop your sheep knowledge.

    Nicole: Yeah, that makes sense.

    Katie: I also knew that sheep would be ... I didn't think that ... I thought it would be a very long time before I'd be able to afford a farm and I knew that a sheep operation could be eminently portable.

    Katie: For the first three years the sheep lived in an abandoned corner of an abandoned barn, and that was perfect for them. Then for the next two years, they lived in a ShelterLogic garage in a box. Have you ever seen one of those kind of gray canvas piped abandoned structures, they lived in one of those.

    Nicole: Yeah.

    Katie: It was perfect. It was everything they needed except hay storage.

    Nicole: Sure. Yeah.

    Katie: They were a little shy on that. But as far as a shelter, even in my climate where we got 13 feet of snow total last year, that kind of shelter is adequate. Consequently, I realized this was a business that I could capitalize with the spare change from my, not very lucrative salary as a goat herd and to be able to do everything I needed to do and pay the bills that I would have having a sheep operation.

    Katie: And knowing that if I didn't want to go the route of writing a business plan, getting a huge loan, having capital partners in my business, I having seen the goat farm struggle with their debt obligations, I really felt I needed to stay as far away from that as I could while building the business slowly.

    Katie: So, I again chose something much more attainable for just the extra money that I would have from the income I had.

    Nicole: Did you farm while you worked for a while or did you just totally quit your day job and jump in with both feet?

    Katie: No. I worked 50 to 60 hours a week on the goat farm. Then in my spare time I raised my sheep. It was absolutely nuts. That's I worked, I think I worked harder than anybody should and I paid for it physically.

    Nicole: Sure.

    Katie: Yeah. So I would go and do ... I would have a break, because the farming day typically has kind of work breaks, I would milk the goats in the morning and then I'd go check on my sheep and then I'd come back and do some production time and some office time on the farm and then I'd milk the goats again and then I would go and move my sheep's pasture and tend to them.

    Katie: But it was definitely an unsustainable amount of work that I was doing. It was not until we bought the farm that we actually ... Keep in mind also I only had, I had 10 ewes and a ram and consequently that wasn't really a full day's work and it certainly wasn't a full year's revenue.

    Katie: Even though I did figure out how to manage even that little enterprise somewhat profitably, I came out ahead in cash at the end of the year based on my inputs and my outputs. Throughout that time anybody who said the H word, if you said hobby to me, I would say, "No, this is an enterprise."

    Katie: Every animal here pays its way. We have production goals. We have a business plan. We have ambitions and I would just cut them right off of the knees as soon as the H word was said because I really firmly believed that this farm would grow and that the sheep farm was in my future.

    Katie: What I hadn't planned out was kind of that point that you allude to, the point where you jump off, you jump into the ocean and you start to swim with your business. We did that when we purchased the house. When we bought the house we ... I guess there's a little bit more that happened in the meantime.

    Katie: So, those first five sheep, turns out that they were probably positive for a disease.

    Nicole: Oh no.

    Katie: That disease started to show up a few years later and we ended up having to eliminate all the animals from that flock and all their descendants except two. So those sheep were gone and I ... That was a very hard decision. That was definitely a decision where I firmly drew the line that this is not a hobby because if it were a hobby then I could just stop breeding them and just have them as pests for a while.

    Nicole: Sure.

    Katie: And let them succumb to natural death. However, because I was determined that this would be a business, I decided that this was the time to change breeds and to start considering pedigreed, pure bred stock so that I could maintain better information about genetics, and so that I could better trace traits through families.

    Katie: The first sheep were crossbred, they weren't even ... They were kind of represented to me as kind of Montadale, a little Corriedale and a bunch of something else, who knows.

    Katie: So what I wound up with using various rams with them was big sheep, small sheep, fat sheep, thin sheep, good wool, bad wool. And there was no way to kind of dial that in.

    Katie: In my time in goats I really came to value strong genetic management. In dairy animals, milking capacity is very genetic and also very hard to kind of keep going. We have asked goats to give about three times as much milk as their kids would ever need, if they were natural wild goats.

    Katie: And to keep their bodies at that kind of extreme production level requires really careful breeding. I really want my sheep to be carefully bred as well.

    Katie: So, that was our move from random crossbred animals to pure bred pedigreed animals and eliminating the existing flock was kind of the moment to sit and think about what traits I wanted and that led me to purchasing bluefaced Leicester and border Leicesters, which are kind of two cousin breeds from the British aisles with some traits that I really value, including really nice marketable wool, tendency to produce twins and triplets and nice economically sized carcasses for Vermont.

    Katie: So, something that happens in Vermont a lot is folks get into the sheep time of life and they say, "Well I don't have a lot of experience with sheep. So I think I need something small and hardy and easy to handle." So they end up with an animal that when it's six months old weighs 50 pounds and that is not a marketable size for a lamb.

    Katie: So I specifically chose two larger breeds that at six months old weigh 110 pounds. Weigh anywhere from 90 to 110 pounds anyway and consequently I have an economically sized animal for saleability in the meat market, which I always knew would be a major portion of my revenue as a shepherd.

    Nicole: Obviously you've kind of mentioned meat and fiber being a priority. But what ways do you profit from your herd?

    Katie: Okay. So I have two really separate and distinct operations with the wool and the meat. An interesting thing I've learned is that the people who really like yarn often do not want to talk about lamb, they don't want to talk about eating sheep, they don't want to think about eating sheep.

    Katie: So, I have a particular way to market to them as people who think animals are cute and cuddly and who want to touch the wool, they get all of the cute cuddly lamb pictures and they enjoy all of the pictures of things we're knit up.

    Katie: People who care about meat want to see pictures of meat and pictures of recipes. They often don't want to be reminded of cute little lambs, so they're not maybe as into that. So we kind of keep the live animals out of that side of things.

    Katie: From each ewe what I would like to have is twin lambs and twin lambs represent kind of a rough shorthand of financial calculation is that one lamb pays for the ewe's hay and care, profits from one lamb pay for her hay and her care and her needs and then the other lamb is profit. The other lamb pays the farmer.

    Katie: So one lamb maintains the ewe, the other lamb pays the farmer for each year, and that's definitely been how it's penciled out for me.

    Katie: The other thing I would like from that ewe is from the border Leicesters a 10 pound clip of nice clean wool, from the bluefaces a two to three pound clip of nice clean wool that I can sell at a premium.

    Katie: What I typically am doing is I take each fleece and anything that's very clean, I would sell raw to people who enjoy cleaning and hand spinning wool. Second, stuff that's slightly less clean goes to the mill and then anything that's dirty I will take the time to clean it as best I can and then I will do some wool processing at home and make mats and hand dyed products from that.

    Katie: So we get raw wool, which is kind of the most profitable item. Yarn the second most. Then everything else I'll try as much as time as I have I'll spend cleaning up and making it saleable.

    Katie: Then each lamb also will provide either wool that I can then kind of put through that wool system or a pelt. Either we sheer them because they have long enough wool to be usable or they have wool too short to be usable and so we'll request their pelts back after slaughter and have them tanned.

    Katie: There's a local organic tannery near us that we use. I guess I shouldn't say organic, I should say a local eco-friendly tannery that we have near us and we then can sell those as well.

    Nicole: So you really utilize every aspect of the animal and it seems like you're really able to ... You don't let much go to waste.

    Katie: That's a huge priority for us. Right now the state of the national sheep industry is ... So the situation of a large scale factory farming of sheep, which doesn't really take place the way that people picture. At most any lamb would spend perhaps one month on a feedlot being fed grain. Most of their lives are spent out to pasture.

    Katie: But in any case, for large flocks out west that provide the lamb that you would see in any old grocery store. There is only one packing house. There's only one slaughterhouse that does lamb on a large scale nationally and they're the only buyer of lamb at all the auctions that happen nationwide.

    Katie: Typically what will happen, typically the structure of farms like that is somebody is a rancher out in Wyoming and they have a flock of ewes and those ewes have lambs every year and they raise those lambs until they weigh 50, 60, 70 pounds and then they take those lambs to auction.

    Katie: That's when the slaughterhouse buys those lambs and then feeds them in feedlots until they weigh ... Till they're the size that the slaughterhouse wants and then the slaughterhouse slaughters them.

    Katie: But because there's only one buyer because it's a monopoly right now, lamb prices are really low, really volatile, and all those farmers get pinched every time lamb prices drop or any time there's any kind of disruption in the lamb supply.

    Katie: So they're all hurting and the sheep population in the US is declining gradually in the US. For farms like mine, what I'm doing is I own the sheep right until the moment that they depart this earth. So, I take them to the slaughterhouse and I bring them back frozen and then I take that meat to farmers' markets and to local grocery stores and market it.

    Katie: I can set my prices how I want and I don't have ... I'm not stuck with kind of what my buyers will pay as much. So let's say people aren't buying as much lamb then I just have to sit on my lamb for a little while until people are ready to buy again.

    Katie: So, being independent frees me from that commodity pricing structure that is putting a lot of farms and ranchers out of business. Also, I can utilize at the slaughterhouse I can get skins back and I can get wool back and I can get everything back that I want to use to augment that profitability as best I can.

    Katie: So, it was clear for me from the beginning that the right way to raise sheep was to be sure to use every product that they offer, and that's why I have stayed away from hair sheep, which are increasingly popular because if you have, for people who don't want to market yarn or for people who don't have the skills and knowledge base to market yarn, it makes sense but you are, I think that they are leaving money on the table.

    Katie: But I'm also lucky to have the resources that I have that allow me to market the wool. I have a parent who's been a knitter for 60 years and so she has the knowledge and capacity to write patterns that help me market the yarn and to give me advice about kind of what kinds of yarn to make and what people are knitting right now.

    Katie: I spend a lot of time in fiber communities kind of watching what people are interested in and what people are discussing and kind of keeping my finger on the post of what knitters want.

    Katie: It takes ... It's definitely not as simple as going to the mill, having some yarn made, putting it in a pile on a table and saying, "Everybody buy this yarn." You really have to know knitters and talk to them to be a successful yarn seller.

    Katie: I've seen plenty of shepherds without that background unable to sell their yarn.

    Nicole: I feel like you're kind of a more progressive farmer, where like you were saying before most of the sheep farmers here they just sell them to the one slaughterhouse and they do the same thing I'm sure every year.

    Nicole: Whereas you really, sounds like you're staying up on current trends and seeing what demand is and really working to be able to supply product based on whatever the current demand is.

    Katie: I'd say the fact of our situation is that on an amount of time basis we could probably work off the farm 30 hours a week and still maintain the amount of actual physical labor that it takes to keep our sheep alive and healthy and thriving most of the time.

    Katie: However, that other 30 hours are taken back with the incessant work of marketing and promoting this project and reminding people. My struggle is I can go to the local grocery store and see them selling lamb at a price that's not much more than the cost of me raising mine, and I have to go out and explain to people why my lamb is the right lamb to buy even though it cost a bit more.

    Katie: What are the economic local benefits to buying my lamb versus that national lamb, that kind of national standard market lamb. That is what my full-time job really is, is promoting this farm and also I think fighting misinformation that's come to ... that's kind of gotten louder over the years about meat and its environmental impacts and its social impacts.

    Katie: I would describe our farm as regenerative and we've actually already seen that by running ... The farm that we bought, I guess I should back up for one second, the farm that we bought was originally meant to be a sheep farm but they never obtained any sheep, that's kind of a longer side story.

    Katie: But what had happened was neighbors had come and they had hayed the land to keep it open for about a decade without putting any inputs in it. So by the time we got here, the soil was strongly depleted.

    Katie: The first year we were here we mowed a first cut of hay at the end of June and that hay did not grow back for the rest of the year. By October there was just enough grass on there to graze the sheep on, but not enough hay, not enough grass grew back for us to actually physically be able to make it into hay. It was too short.

    Katie: And that reflects the fact that soil nutrients were completely deprived. Soil tests back that up. What we're doing now, we've been running sheep over that land again and again working on building up the carbon in it.

    Katie: I think that when we redo soil tests in another year or two, we'll be able to prove that significant amounts of carbon have been redeposited and sequestered in our soil and the benefit will be that grace is growing better and thicker and it's continuing to sequester even more carbon and also hold on to moisture better so that we don't have manure run off into streams and kind of address all of those environmental concerns that we are hearing about with respect to how meat is produced and its impacts on the environment.

    Nicole: So what are some of the other common misconceptions that you've had and that you've faced with marketing your lamb?

    Katie: Definitely the idea that we eat newborn lambs. Something that is I think really hard for humans to kind of ... People who don't work around livestock to kind of get the idea of is that ruminant prey animals have one objective from the moment they're born, which is to grow and mature.

    Katie: Consequently sheep are pretty much full grown. They're about 80% full grown at age one and they're 100% full grown at age two. The fact that we eat lambs at six to eight months old, does not mean that we're eating newborns. We're ...

    Katie: The way that I like to explain it to people is if you have a ram lamb born in February or March, by the time it's October he is a rowdy teenager boy humping everything around him and his mother is ready to let him go to college. So, we take him away and no one is any of the worse for wear. I think that's very true. Most people kind of understand that.

    Katie: I think then another really uncomfortable topic is the idea I think a lot of people have an idea that if you love something it should never die. But we, from the beginning, we understand kind of what the natural lifecycle of sheep would really look like, and if my sheep were wild sheep on an island, unhusbanded by people, they would start to, the dominant males in the fall would start to drive all the young males out of the flock and they'd be driven to the margins so that the dominant males would get all the females for themselves. That's what you see in nature shows that you watch on the Discovery Channel.

    Nicole: Yeah.

    Katie: Then as those animals are driven to the margins of the flock, they become fodder for predatory animals. So if our sheep were wild, all those rams would be driven to the margins and they have to be eaten by wolves and I think that they would choose the quick end of a captive bolt gun over being torn apart by a pack of wolves any day.

    Katie: So, we are giving them that option instead of the wild solution to having 50% ram lambs born but not needing one ram lamb for every ewe in sheep society.

    Katie: I think I very much subscribe to the idea that I've heard primarily from Joel Salatin but I know that it's not his original idea of the domestication agreement between humans and animals, where we have in exchange for protection from predators, animals as a species kind of have agreed in domestication that humans will become both the managers of them and the predators of them. I'm not explaining it very well.

    Nicole: It's not like your animals, you mentioned before, you have pasture animals and then you have the animal welfare approved certification. So, they are living great lives while they are alive as well.

    Katie: Yeah, and I think that's really important. For me what my number one goal certification or not, is to have my sheep live lives that really promote their natural behaviors and that's part of the idea of doing a lot of mob grazing, really following their natural instincts and helping them eat the most nutritious grass I can find for them and making sure that they have a nice large group for security.

    Katie: We wean at 90 days, which is approximately when an ewe is just about done with her lambs anyway. Right now we have lambs who look like they're about two thirds the size of mom and they're still nursing. So, that's definitely a huge part of what we're trying to achieve.

    Katie: Then other things that we're trying to achieve include running poultry behind, around and behind our sheep to clear up parasites and using all of the parasite prevention techniques that we can to reduce our reliance on worming medications.

    Nicole: That's something I haven't heard of before. How do the chickens or the poultry help?

    Katie: The hope would be that they kind of finish off the ... Eat any flies and bugs that emerge, kind of help break up the manure in their search for bugs and also add their own amount of fertility to the grass so that it grows back stronger.

    Nicole: Okay.

    Katie: It's definitely not ... It's more ... We haven't really gotten our poultry numbers up enough to have a real impact, but it's nevertheless something that we're trying to achieve.

    Nicole: Well I'm sure any little bit helps and if you can kind of get everybody to work together, then it's better than trying to figure out with ways like chemicals or something else.

    Katie: Yes definitely.

    Nicole: Out of everything that you do with the lamb and the fiber, what do you think is your favorite part? If you had to pick one thing, what's your favorite part about raising sheep in your farm?

    Katie: I guess the activities that I do, it's something I actually don't get to do anymore. For two years, I had my blueface Leicesters in the breed display at the New York Sheep and Wool Festival, more commonly known as Rhinebeck, which is one of the biggest sheep and wool festivals in the east.

    Katie: This is our sheep and wool festival that gets 40,000 people visiting it. So one of my favorite things to do was to sit in that breed barn and just talk to people about sheep all day long. By the second half of the second day, I usually was losing my voice because I'd given the same talk about sheep until people walked away from me.

    Katie: I started to ... Because it's a noisy environment, I'd end up shouting and consequently I'd get very hoarse by the end. But just talking about the neat things about sheep that I think people don't realize, they just think of sheep as kind of fuzzy cartoons.

    Katie: I really wish that more people had the opportunity to live with me, care for, experience livestock in more genuine environments and I wish that people would take the time to learn, not to kind of humanize sheep, but to learn how sheep view the world and how sheep perceive them and learn to interact with them on their terms.

    Katie: You know one of the main things that I would see happen when I would have my sheep there is everybody would reach for the sheep's face to pet it and my sheep would always back away. Then I would have to explain why a prey animal with side positioned eyes does not really want you to put your hand right on her nose. Why that's going to feel uncomfortable for her.

    Katie: The best time was when people's eyes would light up and you'd see that they really understood, oh yeah, that would seem really threatening to put my hand down on the sheep's head as though she were a dog. Sheep aren't dogs. They would like you to pet their neck where they can clearly see you with their side mounted eyes.

    Katie: Think about the way that sheep perceive the world, thinking about their movements in relation to the sheep so they can learn to seem less threatening to them. Those were always the best moments when people really get it and suddenly they understand instead of imagining sheep as kind of inadequate dogs, they imagine them as the sheep that they are and all the advantages and disadvantages that they have.

    Nicole: I imagine that sheep have sort of been, this might not be the right word, but romanticized or played out on TV and stuff. So, I think you're right. Most people are like, oh, it's just a cute little sheep and it's just fluffy and I want to pet it and hug it and give it kisses on its nose and that's really a not-not.

    Katie: Yeah, sheep don't want that. Sheep do not want that. But at the same time, during some of the hard things that have happened in my life in the last few years, I could definitely hug a sheep. I had built enough of a relationship with my sheep that I had a few, especially border lambs who view me as kind of a weird godparent, those ones you could just gently rest your hands around their neck and kind of push into their shoulder and they'll push into your shoulder and you can actually give a sheep a hug.

    Katie: But you don't ... you earn that. You don't just get to go to a sheep farm and hug a sheep. You earn that by gaining their trust and you gain their trust by learning to moderate your movement, learning to use your eyes in nonthreatening ways, learning to kind of keep your body energy low.

    Katie: These were all things that I learned through trial and error from those first sheep who would have run five miles away from me if they could have.

    Nicole: So do you have any recommendations for new farmers? I know that this was kind of something that was new for you, is there anything that made your transition into this world easier or things that maybe could have been avoided for somebody that wants to jump into this venture?

    Katie: I think my best advice for anybody who would like to have a farming enterprise is to go and work for a farm for a period of time and just ... I definitely, we could have saved some money and some heartache if we had skipped that first farming experience and gone straight for the internship.

    Katie: However, I don't think I would have been ready for the internship without the humbling experience of running out of money on the other farm. I think we needed to crash and burn and pay a little tuition to the school of life.

    Katie: But if you can, if you want to start a farm enterprise, go and work for one that you admire for a little while. Write down what you would do differently but don't pick that fight with the person that you work for. That's another good piece of advice for me.

    Katie: Then take those thoughts and the things that you would emulate and the things that you would discard and then you're ready to start your farm. I think the other piece of advice that I feel pretty strongly about at this point is that ruminants are really wonderful animals to know and love, but they ...

    Katie: I keep seeing them in situations where people think, oh, I'll have some sheep as pets or some goats as pets and then several years later they realize that the sheep aren't well because they have two sheep in aesthetic pasture and they're not doing the management that you need to do to keep these animals healthy and they're also tired of them and also the sheep don't like them that much.

    Katie: It's, I don't think that sheep and goats often make good pets the way that dogs and cats make good pets because they have a very different relationship with humans than dogs and cats do. So I think one ...

    Katie: I really don't ... I accept in certain circumstances I don't personally really believe in livestock as pets.

    Nicole: Sure.

    Katie: I know it's a controversial thing to say, but I think if you want livestock as pets, chickens are great. But sheep and goats need the company of a flock of sheep and goats to be able to live the lives that they deserve to live and have the social experiences that they value.

    Nicole: Absolutely. I can ... If you want to have a successful or happy animal, you kind of need to give them what they want more so than what you want. Whereas you might only want two and they need more than that.

    Katie: Exactly. Exactly. That's the perfect way to put it. I couldn't put it better. They ... I think too many people get cute little lambs or goats and they're excited for what those lambs and goats can do for them but they're not thinking about what they can do for the lambs and goats.

    Nicole: You have so much experience and I'm so thankful that you're willing to share your experience with others. Is there anything maybe that we haven't talked about that you'd like to throw in here as well?

    Katie: Gosh, not that I can think of. I think my most important message is to please support local agriculture whenever you can. Go to the farmers' market. When you do, don't just grab lunch. Buy your fruits and your vegetables and your meats there because when you do you make a real difference in the lives of the people around you.

    Katie: We wouldn't be where we are not if it weren't for the generosity of local farmers' markets letting us in, kind of a little bit last minute to be honest because I didn't have everything together.

    Katie: For supporting and co-promoting our business along with the other businesses that we support that are around us. Your dollar votes for the kind of agriculture that you want to see. So, if you want sustainable and regenerative agriculture, you have to buy that food. It's not going to ... I don't think it's going to happen any other way.

    Nicole: So, for those that would like to support you, where can they find you both locally and online?

    Katie: Our website is We have wool and meat for sale. We have the capacity to deliver our meat in the Northeast. It goes wherever I go. It looks a little informal, I know, but mostly what I'm trying to get at is if you are willing to purchase some meat, I will make sure that I can come by and bring it to you and meet you and talk about the product.

    Katie: We ship our yarn nationwide. And we're about to ... We've just gotten our yarn in from the mill for 2019. So, we'll start to have yarn available on the website shortly.

    Katie: We also have two Instagrams and two Facebooks. If you like adorable lambs and yarn, follow Cloverworks Farm on Facebook and Instagram. If you like meat better and meat and recipes follow Cloverworks Farm Kitchen on both. If you like it all, I don't tend to share content between the two, so liking it all will not get you lots of repeats.

    Nicole: Yeah. I think that's a smart move.

    Katie: That was, I finally came to it because I realized that if I one day I posted sausages to my regular Facebook page just to say, "Hey, look, we've got some sausage." And a whole bunch of people ran away. So I learned I really can't mix meat and wool. They are two different markets and I respect that fact and I just treat them as equal but separate groups.

    Nicole: We'll put links to all of your story and your social media in the description so that anybody that would like to check you out they don't have to go searching for you. It will just be there for them.

    Katie: Well Nicole I really appreciate the time you've taken to talk with me and thank you so much for inviting me on your podcast. This has been a really fun experience.

    Nicole: Of course. Thank you so much for joining us. You've been amazing and I love all of the information that you shared and you've totally inspired me. I wish that I could just quit my day job and open a sheep farm now because I think what you're doing is just incredible.

    Katie: Wow, thank you so much. I appreciate that.

    Nicole: Thank you so much for listening to Backyard Bounty and we'll see you again next week.

    Announcer: Thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty, a podcast by Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review. If you have a question you'd like us to answer on the show, please email us at [email protected]. Also, find us on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube at Heritage Acres Market.

    Announcer: All of the links mentioned in this podcast will be included in the description. See you again next week.

    Edited by PodSugar Audio Production & Editing

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