I’ve had a fascination with farm life from a young age. As soon as I could get my hands on a tiny square of land, I was gardening. I adored James Herriot books and the idea of country life. Yet I grew up living in some of the largest cities in the world. My husband didn’t enter the equation with any farm knowledge of his own. We’ve learned by doing, jumping in and making mistakes and growing along the way. I call him a reluctant farmer. But here he is, all these years later, rocking Carhartts and driving a pickup, with a hound dog hanging out the window.
We started with sheep when our oldest daughter expressed an interest in showing an animal at the county fair. She wanted a cow but that was a huge leap from our established flock of chickens. We discovered she would need a purebred animal, and our friend mentioned a Shetland lamb she knew of. We drove an hour to meet the tiny black ewe named Briar Rose. By the time we brought her home, I had located two lambs of mixed-breed heritage at a local farm, so we could have a small flock. We were surprised that Briar Rose had turned a lighter-brown color, and at first were convinced it was another lamb entirely. This was our introduction to some of the amazing characteristics of the breed.
Our plunge into the world of sheep and wool happened without much planning and entirely on a whim. We’ve learned volumes in the last 15 years, not just about fiber farming but teamwork, ourselves, and each other. There are stunningly beautiful moments, some of which we’ve managed to capture on camera. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine though; sometimes it rains. I won’t sugar-coat it: there are frustrations, emotional outbursts, injuries, and general family chaos. There are no days off from morning and evening chores. The animals need to be fed, and then there are all the tasks to fit in, like fence mending, stall mucking, fence moving, and catching the occasional wanderer. The tasks change with the calendar: spring shearing and lambing, summer pasturing, fall breeding, endless clearing of snow and ice to access the barns in winter.
We don’t take many family vacations. For one, it’s difficult to find someone to cover indoor and outdoor animals, and for another, keeping animals is expensive. The single huge trip we planned for “making family memories”, I managed to break my leg the night before while coming out of the house with a tube of ointment for a lamb. I stayed in the hospital for surgery while they went to Hawaii. Our farm-sitter ended up caring for me as well.
We’ve learned together about fiber. The mountains of fleece in every space of our house became a motivating factor to educate ourselves about wool. We went from having a few sheep to being full-blown fiber hoarders and then a small fiber business. We washed and carded, and the girls learned to spin and knit. We played with natural dyes. We felted together on snow days. The girls have carried these skills with them, and taught others who don’t know where or how their clothing is created. Wool is an amazing fiber, durable and strong, soft and light. They have grown up appreciating that the sheep grow fiber through eating grass, and their manure improves our soil to grow the vegetables we eat year-round. We have learned the benefits of rotational grazing and how to pull it off.
Taking their sheep to fairs has been a highlight of childhood summers. Hard work pays off with beautiful healthy animals to display, and the girls competently manage interactions with the public about their heritage breed wooly creatures. (No, they aren’t goats. No, we’re not shearing them today because we are showing them in full fleece.) They’ve created wonderful displays on sheep, wool, and natural dyes. They happily spin yarn, felt, and knit in public spaces to pique interest in heritage arts and share their knowledge with others. Our oldest daughter attended shearing school and now shears small flocks. The bolts of wool fabric they receive as prizes, they’ve sewn into garments for themselves and each other to wear. They take pride in themselves and I can’t ask for more as a parent than having children who value the worth of hard work when they acknowledge how far their personal journey has taken them.
There are the quaint joyful moments you’d expect me to write about: toddlers clutching sweet lambs, crisp spring mornings with bouncy happy sheep on impossibly green pasture. Moments of bliss and wonder when I find my children discovering for themselves that they handled insurmountable challenges. There are times they’ve been faced with critical situations, no adult present to steer the ship. They accept the burden, and their acquired skills in problem-solving and critical thinking during urgent circumstances have been profound.
One tale of family lore is a time the girls were home together on a snow day. My husband was away on a trip, and my job doesn’t close for weather. I mentioned to the girls that they should keep a close eye on Sunflower, one of our pregnant ewes, as she seemed uncomfortable and close to birthing. Later that morning the girls realized Sunny was in trouble. She was suffering from pregnancy toxemia and needed immediate care. I couldn’t get home, so our neighbor came up the hill with his truck and helped my oldest daughter take Sunny to the veterinary clinic up the road for a C-section. The triplet lambs were tiny and weak, and the team handed them over and told her they probably wouldn’t make it. She had brought towels and worked on those lambs, stripped colostrum and gave them each some. They loaded Sunny and the babies up, and returned home to a cozy clean pen set up with a heat lamp by the sisters at home. Late that night, I crept home through the heavy snow in the dark and left my car down the hill, as our driveway was unplowed. I hiked up the thigh-deep snow toward the crack of light coming from the barn doors. Exhausted but exuberant, my children greeted me with three thriving babies wrapped in blankets. They had taken shifts, feeding and cuddling lambs, shoveling to keep doors clear of snow, and warming indoors with cocoa. Those triplets survived and it’s a testament to the fierce determination of my daughters.
We aren’t a huge commercial farm, and our farming adventure is not lucrative. Yarn and fiber sales don’t amount to the cost of hay. On hard or challenging days, when my chest is heavy with the burden of poor outcomes, I wonder if this lifestyle is worth it. Reflecting on the strength, resilience, and confidence my children have gained makes me know that it is. The best things in life are not always the easy things. We may not travel together as a family, but we have deep shared experiences. Life is precious and valuable, but it’s fragile and can be fleeting. On a farm you can’t shield children from the bare truths and lessons that we all face at some point in our lives. They get up in the middle of the night to bottle feed their babies, not because we tell them they have to but because they know that without care, the babies will die. With care they will flourish and grow; but sometimes even with the best of care they don’t.
My daughters carry their sheep, family, and farm right along with them on cold days, enveloping them on their journey. There is immense joy and incredible heartache in raising animals, these souls who are entrusted to our care, who each have names and personalities and stories. There is also immense pride in our family efforts and adventures. I wouldn’t trade this for another life, and I anticipate continuing to learn and grow as I connect with others who share our love of sheep and wool.
Meg Falcone raises Shetland sheep in Plainfield, NH. She is a shelter veterinarian, mother of five daughters, general manager and jack-of-all-trades at Five Sisters Farm. A relatively new knitter, Meg enjoys Fair Isle color work patterns that highlight the gorgeous natural colors of Shetland sheep. She recently visited Shetland and has an even deeper appreciation for the history and culture of this wonderful heritage breed. Follow Meg and her family farm on Instagram as @5sistersfarm.