there was a man who took his wife and young children to live on a small farm. One day this man bought a dog, a beautiful black and white dog. “Fine,” said his wife, “but the dog is another mouth to feed. We will need more than a dog to make it day to day.”
So the man went out and brought home a few woolly sheep in order to train the beautiful black and white dog to herd them. “Fine,” said his wife. “but the sheep mean more mouths to feed. We will need more than a herding dog and a few sheep to make it day to day.”
So the man went out and brought home a spinning wheel. He gave it to his wife and bid her take the soft silky wool from the sheep that were herded by the beautiful black and white dog and make goods to sell that would keep their family day to day.
“I think not!” cried his wife. And she went away to work as a nurse so that her family would make it day to day. But at night, when her children were tucked in their beds and her husband–who was himself tired from a hard day at work and a busy evening training the beautiful black and white dog to herd the woolly sheep–snored on the sofa, she stared at the spinning wheel and began to dream….
There was a cold rain, and we stood in a damp barn, alongside a muddy pasture. And it was one of the best Saturday mornings I’ve spent in quite some time. My daughter Heather and I paid a visit to Tracy Riddle, owner and operator of The Shepherd’s Wife, a sheep farm just outside Hamel, IL. Tracy raises sheep (among other critters like Pac Man the Alpaca) and practices the ancient arts of spinning wool, dying yarn, and producing handcrafted soaps and lotions.
I first met Tracy and her husband Steve at The Land of Goshen Community Market, where Tracy had been selling her wares for many years. I got to know her through her wonderful soaps and lotion bars. Since my daughter is a gardener who suffers several times each summer with acute poison ivy, I am a regular Shepherd’s Wife customer, buying up bar after bar of Tracy’s famous Jewelweed soap, which Heather swears is the BEST poison ivy remedy she’s ever found. So at the end of the summer season last year, Tracy and I made plans for a farm visit—and here we are–my first farm visit of 2018!
When you ask the predictable question: “So, Tracy, how did you get started in the sheep farming business?” you get a very unpredictable answer: “Steve bought a dog.” A border collie, to be exact, one that is bred to spend its days herding sheep. So naturally, Steve needed some sheep to give the dog something to do, and from there it was a fairly small step into the challenging world of dog trials and herding competitions. Later, Steve added an Anatolian Shepherd/Marema, a classic livestock guardian dog that is bred to protect flocks of sheep from predators. And, of course, more sheep followed.
When Tracy tactfully mentioned the mounting expense of his new hobby, Steve gave her an antique spinning wheel, to which she sighed (hard) and—in the beginning–walked away. But then she came back and thought “Well, maybe….” Yes, their story is a lot like a fairy tale in many ways, and if you catch them at one of the many reenactment events they attend, you’d really believe they came right out of the pages of a child’s storybook.
In a Time Far Away…
At events throughout the region, Steve demonstrates sheep herding with his dog and four or five of their sheep. In addition to herding, he explains the history of this unique breed of dog, the importance of sheep, and then demonstrates for his audience how these animals interact. Steve has worked for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and his very first demonstration was at Lincoln’s New Salem. His love of both history and herding combined with great success…and the rest is…history.
While Steve is busy with herding demonstrations, Tracy holds spinning and weaving demonstrations in their tent—her traveling shop. “That’s how my business got its name. I’m The Shepherd’s Wife,” she explained with a smile.
“We do a lot of education while we talk to and get to know all kinds of great people,” said Tracy. “I’m often asked: ‘are those goats?’ So many people have never even seen a sheep up close… or a spinning wheel or loom, for that matter. Some people point to the loom and say, ‘Look at that sewing machine.’” Tracy smiles—but it’s a kind smile that tells you she loves creating and sharing the lessons of history, art and sheep. “At our peak, we attended about 10 weekend events every year at historic sites, Scottish festivals (Yes, Steve owns a kilt!) and agricultural/fiber art fairs.
Far From Fiction
But like most folklore, the story of The Shepherd’s Wife begins—and continues—in the very real world of honest hard work, unflinching dedication to an honorable and sustainable way of life, unlimited passion to live one’s dreams and pursue one’s art, and an unconditional love of farm life and…well…sheep.
“I’d always wanted to live on a farm,” Tracy said. “And when the kids were little, we moved here.” Tracy also had a dream of one day becoming a veterinarian, but she entered nursing instead—a field that now serves her quite well as head shepherdess and caretaker for her small flock of about 30 head of sheep, give or take annual births and trips to the butcher (Yes, we did say working farm.). Her third goal was to be an artist, and she has pretty much has nailed that one with her handcrafted soaps and lotions and her beautiful array of hand-dyed yarns.
Unlike the storybook vision of the idyllic farm life, though, meeting day to day obligations is not always easy. “It won’t matter what the weather is like,” explained Tracy, pointing to the now pouring cold rain outside. “I’m here to feed before work every morning and back in the barn after work each evening. “Still,” she qualifies, “you know, there is no place else I’d rather be. Even though the work is hard and demanding, I’m happiest in the barn.”
Because Tracy and Steve let Nature sort of run the farm, they are on the sheep’s schedules much more often than on their own. On the morning we were there, Tracy was watching over Martha (who looked like she could pop any minute) and Liberty, two moms-to-be who were hanging out in the cozy stalls of the maternity ward. “Sheep give birth about once per year, and twins are not unusual,” Tracy explained with a nod to Martha’s overly wide middle. “We have a resident ram, who fathers many of our lambs, but sometimes we trade rams with other sheep producers in our network, just to keep the stock strong. We do not artificially inseminate.” So, romance rules on Tracy’s farm.
“We started out with St. Croix crossed sheep; then, we upgraded to Montedales,” explained Tracy. “Once I learned to spin, I made Steve upgrade to Border Leicester because I loved their wool. Now we are crossing them with a Wensleydale ram to breed for a higher wool quality.”
Since the bulk of Tracy’s business is artisan soaps, lotion bars and yarn made from the sheep’s wool, she doesn’t need a lot of their milk. This is good news for all the little lambs, who grow up with their moms, benefiting from the nutrition-rich milk and the natural bonding experience. “Our sheep are pretty laid back, overall,” Tracy said. “They are used to us because we are here with them every day.
“I think that’s really important,” she continued. “I know them all by name, know their body shapes, their typical behaviors. I can pretty much guess early-on when someone is expecting, or not feeling well, or exhibiting some really spectacular characteristics that we want to pass along.” She pointed to a cute little guy with an all-white coat and smudgy gray nose. “That little guy is going to be special, I think,” she said smiling. “Everything about him—the way he stands, his temperament, his intelligence tells me he may become a new breeding ram on the farm.”
Of course, every day is not a happily-ever-after day on a working farm. “Because we are in the business of raising sheep, it is inevitable that we will lose a lamb or two each year. Maybe a twin does not survive or a mom has complications that take her down. When babies don’t make it, Tracy freezes the unused milk from their mothers for her soap and lotion production. “If a mom doesn’t make it, there are usually other moms who are willing to step in. And, sometimes the “mom” who steps in is Tracy, herself. A shepherdess’ work is never done.
“There can actually be quite a bit of heartbreak,” she said, and shared a story about a season of great loss, when the hay they feed the sheep during the winter had been tainted with snakeroot, causing milk fever. “We lost quite a few sheep that year, but we made it though and became wiser about where we buy our hay. You know,” she said, “Abraham Lincoln’s mother died after drinking milk from a cow that ate snakeroot.” (Apparently, you can’t take the historian out of the shepherdess.). Everything may not be “happy ever after,” but everything is as natural as possible and as kind as farming can be at The Shepherd’s Wife.
“Because I have a background in nursing,” Tracy explained, “I’ve learned to take a sort of middle of the road approach to raising our sheep. While we never give them medications they don’t need, if they are sick, we are quick to act with every means available to us. I refuse to let our sheep suffer just to strictly abide by some set of rules that may or may not make sense for the welfare of the animal.”
Tracy gives a little chuckle. “At one time, we had a sheep named Danny, and he was (she hesitates) special.” Danny actually became a sort of superstar sheep on the reenactment circuit—that’s him in the photo above–nearly a cult figure, according to Tracy. Danny, you see, was a star-gazer.
Tracy explained that when Danny and his brother were born, his brother was just another happy little lamb, perfectly formed and raring to go. Danny, however, was different. He seemed perfectly healthy in most ways, but he suffered from a condition called “star-gazing,” meaning his head folded back, leaving him permanently staring at the sky. His neck could simply not support his head and he was unable to stand. Left on his own, he would have perished. And, on most large sheep farms, Danny would have been put down because the time and attention needed for his care would have demanded more than a large sheep producer could spare. But Tracy was not ready to give up on Danny.
“I brought Danny into the house, fashioned a diaper for him (no, not kidding) and started researching what might help him deal with this condition.” She found that a low level of vitamin B1 was a likely culprit, so she began giving him injections for several days. In addition, she spent hours giving Danny one-on-one physical therapy so that he would develop physically as normally as he could. After about three weeks of constant care as a “house pet,” Danny was able to reenter the world of sheep, but Danny was forever… different. His upbringing left him with a temperament closer to a big dog than a sheep. “He was incredibly affectionate,” Tracy explained. “And at events, all the kids would scream ‘Where’s Danny?’ He really had quite the following and seemed to take his superstar status quite well.” Perhaps to know one’s surprise, Danny really connected to special needs kids and their families, according to Tracy. Such is life on a kind farm.
Before winding down the morning visit, Heather and I followed Tracy for little tour of the barnyard just outside and found ourselves surrounded by moms and babies—a lot like going to a park on a Saturday afternoon. Despite the cold rain and muddy ground, the lambs were frolicking, while the moms were huddled in apparent gossip, keeping a watchful eye on their offspring.
“I really thought I might call and cancel your visit this morning,” said Tracy. “The weather is so awful and the ground is so muddy. But, this is what it is like on the farm—good days and bad days. We get them both. The other morning it was really cold, but I came out like always and sat down over there,” she said motioning to a rather rusty piece of farm equipment. “I had my coffee, and I was watching the new lambs run around, when one of my sheep came over and put her head on my shoulder, just to say good morning. I was pretty cold, but at that moment I knew it was going to be a good day.”
You can buy Tracy’s amazing soaps and lotions, hand-dyed yarns and even some lamb meat at The Land of Goshen Winter Market on April 21, downstairs in the Newsong Fellowship Church in Edwardsville. Then she’ll have all her wares for sale every week when the full season begins on May 12.
If you have never cooked with lamb, take a peek at my Shepherd’s Pie, made with Tracy’s ground lamb. Don, by the way, thought my take on Shepherd’s Pie was delicious, and I think you will, too. Remember that humanely raised, small-batch produced, local meat is a very green option in your overall diet. And if you are finding it hard to reconcile eating lamb, just keep in mind that cows, chickens and sows have babies, too, and that it is far more responsible to know your grower than it is to avoid something because it is culturally seen as “cute”. Just saying.