What we’ve got to show for it

Would you believe that this is the same little guy featured in a gallery of photos I posted just a month ago? Lambs surely grow fast, especially when they’re on their mothers, but this fellow has changed so much. Now he sports horns, a bit of a beard, and an attitude to match his testosterone-stoked bulk. Some folks will allow several rams to run with the ewes through fall breeding. Because our breed stock is registered (with NASSA) we impose strict management practices to ensure that we know the parentage of every lamb born here at the farm. To simply let the animals run amuck would preclude using any of the resulting offspring for breeding. As it turns out, little #1430 here is a pure shetland ram. He’ll remain intact until midsummer and then be measured against the other boys as well as our current flock sires, Woodruff and Seigfreid. When the dust settles we’ll hold on to two or perhaps three boys and the others will be wethered, well before the ewes begin to cycle. We take the selective breeding and culling of our flock very seriously and this has worked wonders, for the quality of our animals has improved dramatically over the years and they now conform to breed standards established by the Shetland Flock Book Society in 1927 (known today as the Shetland Sheep Society). The colors of our naturally colored fleeces range from the white, to gray, to brown, to black (including shades in between). Moreover our fleeces are crimpy, lustrous, soft, and of nice staple. We purchased our first sheep back in 1993. Lamb #436 was born on the farm this past April representing, along with his cohort of twenty-six others, the fruit of twenty-one years of hard work. Joanna and I are not well-known for having raised sheep for this long, and we are certainly not rich for having done so (much to the contrary, for we have lost our shirts in this business they call sheep (or fiber) farming). So what, you may ask, do we have to show for our efforts? Surely, if both of us had been investment bankers, or doctors, or lawyers, we’d have something more tangible to show for our successes (happy investors, healthy patients, or exonerated clients, perhaps). But instead, we made the decision, long ago, to live a somewhat simpler life and to care for a menagerie of animals, including sheep. So, I repeat, what do we have to show for this decision? What we’ve got is satisfaction and that is all. We’ve had the satisfaction of working with a sheep breed that is currently listed by The Livestock Conservancy as recovering, which means that although the breed is no longer classified as either threatened or endangered, it is still in need of monitoring. We have worked to preserve a unique assemblage of genes in four-legged vessels we call sheep. These genes differ from those found in vessels known as cows, horses, pigs, chickens, or turkeys, and the particular assemblage of genes we find in Shetland sheep differs from that found in the many hundreds of breeds of sheep which exist around the world. So, in what way can this have been satisfying? Well, what if no one cared to preserve this particular genetic reservoir? What would happen? Consider that, eventually, the Shetland would go the way of the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Elephant Bird, it would go extinct … that’s what if. And no matter what scientists will tell you about current advances in genetic engineering, sheep genes cannot be re-engineered once lost. Joanna and I see ourselves as having acted as stewards of a particular assemblage of genes which manifest as the Shetland sheep. And why have we done this? Because we see it as having been our way of paying forward the good fortunes this planet has brought our way.




14 thoughts on “What we’ve got to show for it

  1. That is quite a change. Amazing! Yes, you have struck on a very important point there. Unfortunately our current economic model does not fall in-line with (I refuse to use the word “natural” at this time, as it implies a level of chaos that you are taking great pains to circumvent) more skillful approaches to farming. Currently the so-called industrial model is so competitive that what transpires on most large-scale farms is hardly recognizable as farming! And where does this leave us as a people? Seven billion strong, (and growing) spread out across almost every corner of the earth and engaged in a desperate bid to feed ourselves. Not something that an ecologist would recognize as sustainable, eh? Rather than work to feed and clothe ourselves as well as engage in activities we deem as useful we, instead, run after acculturating dollars as a proxy for happiness, just assuming that more of one will give more of the other, only to discover – too late – that this is a complete fallacy; a cruel illusion. Twenty one years ago, though, you and J. recognized this and decided to put into effect a course of action that would lead to a different kind of life. Now, after much hard work, yes you do have the satisfaction that comes from knowing that what you have done has been the right thing. You are indeed rich 🙂

    • Thanks for the supportive words Maurice. You know, sometimes, when I put down in words these sort of thoughts and observations, I hesitate just a wee little bit. Perhaps I SHOULD have gone to medical school and had accounts now overflowing with funds. Joanna says that if I’d have been a physician I’d be in therapy and in possession of an unhealthy BMI! She’s probably right. My most difficult times of doubt come when my graduating class has a reunion. Part of the celebration always includes the publication of one of those ‘Where are they Now,’ sorts of things … you know, where are your classmates and what are they doing with their lives. No joke, when I look these over I find that the vast majority of my classmates are investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and diplomats. And here I am, a college professor at a little-known institution … raising sheep and chickens. Am I sure I made the right decision? Well … consider that I am now sitting at the kitchen table, with Joanna across the table from me! I’m sipping coffee, writing to you, while listening to birds songs loft in from the recently mowed lawns out back. Yeah … I made the right decision. D

  2. These wonderful animals are lucky to have had you watching over them. In life, you have to do what makes YOU happy. I’m glad you’ve found satisfaction in choosing this path. Many people go the route of money or obligation in picking their life profession and in the end are never really happy.

    • When my graduating class has its reunions it has been its habit to publish one of those ‘Where they are now’ things, you know … where everyone is and what they’re doing. It’s always pretty tough for me to read that the vast majority of my classmates are investment bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and diplomats … no joke. And I am forced to face the realization that I’m a college professor, at a little-known institution, raising chickens and sheep. Apples and Oranges? I’m, sometimes, not so sure. You and Joanna are, I suppose, in agreement that there are things more important then money. I’m still working on the concept … but am trying … as this post suggests. D

  3. Wonderful work. You have lived a life in tune with and embracing nature. I call that a life well lived. What you have to show are warm bright hearts and eyes, and the peace of knowing that you leave the world a little better than you found it each year 🙂 Not everyone can say that. A bulging bank balance doesn’t always mean a life well lived … I suppose it all depends on what you value …

  4. Love your attitudes towards stewardship and satisfaction … the world is a better place for your efforts. Lovely picture, he looks like a proud little prince. Have you done a post on horns yet?

      • No problem! I’m always sad at myself when I don’t make the time to come on here and read these, because I (and others) enjoy them so much. Horns – how they grow, what they are made of, why different animals horns are the shapes they are, etc etc, you know, interesting stuff!

  5. A lovely collection of though. I often imagine that the future, as unknowable as it is, may not offer a hospitable environment for the livestock we’re developing now. Older genetics have always seemed an imperative, a ‘base line’ to begin again.

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