Wednesday, December 29, 2010

a modest profession

There's a viable career path out there that just isn't getting the attention it deserves. It's not for everyone, of course, but for people with the right amount of drive and wit: it's the only way to go. It's got all the perks of the best corporate offices: amazing window views, a dependable workforce, a great gym, marketing and sales opportunities galore and the best part: you can eat your coworkers' children. You just can pull that shit off at the Googleplex.

It's shepherding, darling, and contrary to popular belief there's still a paycheck to be made with a dog at your side and crook in your hand. While some might think this has been a dead vocation since, I don't know, the Bronze Ageā€”there's actually a living to be made raising sheep. You can take your pick how. You want to raise lamb chops? Go ahead. Prefer to raise sweaters? You can do that too. Maybe you want to sell authentic Ricotta, lanolin skin products, or shearling boots and coats? Well, you can do those all in spades, son. And if none of this suits you, well, then raise lambs for other farmers so they can. There's no glass ceiling when the walls are electric netting.

A sheep is a noble animal, probably the perfect small-farm livestock. I always say this, but that's because I really mean it folks. Sheep give us wool, yes, but they also manage to give us meat, milk, lanolin, landscaping, lambs, rugs, cheese, leather, fleeces, horns, buttons, entertainment, ambiance and Border Collies. They are better behaved than goats, and less dangerous than cattle and hogs. One person with a good dog can manage a whole flock with a few commands or whistle blows. I ask you, with all these products and processes how could one not succeed if they truly gave it their all?

So that's what I'm doing here. Cold Antler Farm is a mix of many different species and projects: but the keystone of the whole arc (ark?) is 100% ovine. I raise sheep because my region, my personality, and my desire to be outside can all marry with the aid of these beasts. And I want to be outside with them, so much.

I want to knit their yarn, deliver their lambs, host farm dinners, and shear their raw wool. I want to learn how to train and work with my business partner, the Border Collie, so someday long from now I can breed and train my own dog on my own land and raise him up under the supervision of wiser dogs. I want to know what it's like to feed a pregnant ewe in winter, help her raise her lambs all spring, watch them gambol and grow all the long summer, and learn to say goodbye in the fall. I want to thank them with October bonfires warmed by thick wool sweaters and hard cider from the trees they shared with me. I want them to show me how to be a proper person. One who knows how to be quiet, and still, and not make a fuss or need to escape all the time. There is so much to learn from the Zen that is shepherding with a hungry mind. Call it a pipedream if you must. No offense taken here. I find both pipes and dreams useful objects in a life worth reclining back into.

So on 6 and a half hilly, rough, acres in Washington County I will learn how to do all this, slowly, with many mistakes and lessons. I'll repair soil and pasture. I'll learn to breed and train. I'll figure out the fences and outbuildings, socks and sweaters: all of it. This is my work and my dream and how blessed it is to have those two nouns together form the beautiful verb FARM. Whatever sacrifices or struggles arise I'll meet them the way a proper sheepdog does, with a steady glare, ears back, and head low. (I am learning how to be a better person by watching superior animals work with all their heart.)

I want to do this for the rest of my life. I know won't get wealthy. I know won't travel far. I know might do it alone indefinitely. I know I might fail. I know I'll get hurt. I know it's all an emotional and social gamble. That's all okay.

Not taking up this line of work, isn't.


Blogger Stephanie said...

Oh, Jenna. You are so right on - I love how you can make it sound romantic and real at the same time. I dream of being in your shoes someday (very) soon! Until then I'll live vicariously through you and your awesome little team.

December 29, 2010 at 9:45 PM  
Blogger Amy McPherson Sirk said...

Well said. Very well said.
While I don't shepherd I do farm and its a thing that gets down into your soul and won't let go. I wish you every success and happiness. Hopefully the day will come when neither of us have to do this alone.

December 29, 2010 at 9:50 PM  
Blogger tina said...

You ARE richer than you know :)
Very few people live the life they imagine in their head...nice to know someone who is making it real :)

December 29, 2010 at 9:51 PM  
Blogger Dayle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

December 29, 2010 at 10:14 PM  
Blogger Dayle said...


December 29, 2010 at 10:19 PM  
Blogger Carol G said...

That is so right on. It makes me want to get some sheep and give it a try.

December 29, 2010 at 10:49 PM  
Blogger k said...

Inspiring post, makes the wheels churn even more in contemplating if I could do that too. Thanks!

December 29, 2010 at 10:51 PM  
Blogger goodnufranch said...


I have lived on the land and have been farming for the past 20 years. I will tell you something, which I am sure you have figured out by now, and your on the farm isn't about making money-although that would be great-it is more of a lifestyle.

We as 'farmers' are the stewards of the land. We have the greatest honour and career that God can bestow on a person. And of course that is being a farmer.

It doesn't matter how big or small your farm is. All that matters is you are basically free. You are not tied to a desk, a cubicle or confined to the indoors.

Enjoy your lifestyle Jenna. Welcome.


December 29, 2010 at 11:08 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

You are never truly alone with good dogs by your side, sheep in the pasture, and hundreds of readers and supporters cheering you on. :)

December 30, 2010 at 12:04 AM  
Blogger Morgan said...

Alright Jenna, when do you want me to come for my summer internship on the farm? I can learn how to be a hard working sheepstress and keep you some company!

December 30, 2010 at 1:08 AM  
Blogger Odie Langley said...

Jenna you have friends that are cheering you on and hoping with all our hearts that your dreams will surely be a reality and with your enthusiasm maybe some others will take the step to realize their dreams as well. We are blessed to be able to follow your progress.

December 30, 2010 at 4:49 AM  
Blogger daisy said...

Living your dreams is quite a nice life, eh?

December 30, 2010 at 6:05 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Just two notes:

I am working toward a dream, but not there yet. My long-term goal is to live on the farm, full time. And that is why money comes up on this blog. I don't mention it in posts because I want to get rich farming, that is never my intention.

That said, I am grateful and happy for the job I have, and wouldn't want to work for any office more than the one I do.

December 30, 2010 at 6:25 AM  
Blogger farmgirljen said...

We are small farmers for Iowa (320 acres) and aren't getting rich on this end either. And it breaks our hearts how here in the land of monoculture (corn and soybeans - and don't think of planting anything else) the land is so abused. When it rains, it runs off the neighbor's farm like a parking lot at Wal-Mart, but on our land, rich in organic matter, the land sighs and drinks it in. It's simply amazing. -- I am so glad, Jenna, that you are tackling this challenging yet rewarding way of life. I love it and am thinking of branching off so when I "retire" from my regular job, I have a second career, perhaps as a blueberry farmer. It is so crucial to farming to have younger folks, such as yourself, get involved. Here in Iowa, land prices make it mostly prohibitive. I don't know too many 20-somethings who have a million dollar line of credit at the bank. So keep living and reaching for your dream. Blessings be heaped upon you for encouraging all of us to go for the happiness quotient. Money may be important, but without happiness and satisfaction in what you do, it doesn't mean much (maybe that's why I'll never be "rich" by conventional standards - so maybe we need to change them!).

December 30, 2010 at 8:20 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

The reason to make money on the farm is so you can live on your own terms and not be beholden to a paycheck. So you calculate the least you can live on and roll with that, because the alternative (having to give up and work a desk job forever) is unthinkable. A free life is so much better than stuff. Jenna, you're off to an excellent start, and you clearly have a good business head. I have no doubt you'll pull it off!

December 30, 2010 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

Jenna- you are absolutely right on the mark. To be here, tending all this and helping it unfold every day would be amazing, but blessed we are with jobs that let us work toward that. (It's easy to forget that part if you get to hurried toward the farm goal.)
I think, if you aren't writing the CAF saga for Storey, a shepherding book would be great. I think it is already written and bottled up there in your veins...I want to raise sweaters and you could help me learn where to start.

December 30, 2010 at 10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said Jenna! Amen and Right On! From one beginning shepherd to another, I can attest that it ain't for sissies, this shepherding/farming thing. The lessons must be learned, and no matter how well prepared we are, we still learn many of them the hard way. I continue to be inspired by your sharing of your journey, you say it all so much better than I can :)

December 30, 2010 at 2:54 PM  
Blogger Reason's Whore said...

Well, it is a lovely hobby, and I am very fond of my sheep, but the only way there's money or anything approaching a "living" in it is if you breed and sell purebred sheep of a rare variety. Otherwise, with the wool and meat you might break even in a good year.

December 31, 2010 at 1:01 AM  
Blogger Kelpie and Collie said...

Good post RW- and breaking even is very good. . There is also that pesky issue of health insurance....

December 31, 2010 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Brooke said...

lovely post! :)

December 31, 2010 at 3:36 PM  
Blogger jlandrist said...

Excellent post! I'm not sure I will ever be able to realize my dream of farming on the scale I'd like but I will do what I can where I am. It is people like you who warm my heart. My grandparents and great grandparents were farmers. My grandparents were until they moved to IL for work. My Grammy always wanted to go back. She was never happy here. I can totally relate. There is a tug in my heart that is almost painful to go back to the place my grandparents came from and continue the farm life. I have more respect for farmers than I do for any other profession. Without them none of us would eat, have clothes, etc. They deserve much more respect than they are given in our service oriented economy. We definitely need to do an about face!

January 2, 2011 at 8:48 AM  

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