High above a small valley in southeastern Minnesota leading into the Zumbro River is Rising Moon Farm, where author Catherine Friend and her partner Melissa Peteler raise sheep and cattle. In her book, Two Women, Fifty Sheep & Enough Wool to Save the Planet, Friend discusses the challenges of raising sheep and being a small farmer in today's economy.
Commitmentnow.com: How did you become a sheep farmer? What led you to this life on a Minnesota farm?
Catherine Friend: Sometimes love leads you in directions you wouldn't normally choose. When my spouse Melissa asked me if I'd help her start a farm, I thought long and hard about that. I didn't know anything about animals, I didn't like hard, physical labor, and I didn't like getting my hands dirty.... so I said 'Yes.' I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Commitmentnow.com: What has caring for sheep taught you about yourself and life in general? Can you share some of the lessons you have learned because of the flock you care for?
Catherine: Patience. Respect for nature. Gratitude for the food I eat. And the biggest? When things go wrong, it's okay to collapse for a minute and feel sorry for ourselves, but then I must pick myself up and keep going. And hopefully, in a few weeks we're able to chuckle about whatever went wrong.
Laughing at our little disasters is the only way to survive farming.
Commitmentnow.com: What are sheep like? Can you tell us about some of your sheep and their unique personalities?
Catherine: Sheep aren't stupid! They're great at being sheep---which means they focus on just three things: eating, feeding their lambs, and keeping their lambs safe. When my life gets crazy, I try to remember that simple is better. Sitting out in the pasture with my sheep helps me remember that.
As for personalities, sheep can be skittish, bold, or everything in between. Animals that have been raised on bottles are the friendliest, and tend to be the most talkative as well.
Commitmentnow.com: What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you while caring for sheep--and what has been the greatest challenge?
Catherine: Funniest? Uff-da. The list is too long. It might be the time I was chasing two lambs wearing not chore jeans, but a more fashionable pair that was, well, a bit too tight. One of the lambs became entangled in a fence at my feet, so all I had to do was bend over and grab him. But I was hot and sweaty and did I mention my jeans were tight? I couldn't bend! My arms dangled uselessly a foot above the lamb. Melissa yelled at me to 'catch him!' but I couldn't reach. Needless to say, the lamb escaped. Next time I did chores, I made sure to wear my baggy overalls.
The greatest challenge is learning to accept death. We raise animals for meat, so there is going to be a death at the end of that animal's life. But animals die too soon---from illness or injury or being attacked by coyotes. I'm not sure people realize how much heartache goes into raising the food we eat---it's hard work, both physically and emotionally. But Melissa and I believe it's important that people have access to meat from animals that have been raised humanely, on a small, sustainable farm.
Commitmentnow.com: Why did you almost want to give up farming and what helped you realize that you wanted to continue on?
Catherine: I was feeling stuck in all aspects of my life---career, farm, relationship, middle age. But I didn't want to throw out my entire life; I just wanted to find a way to like it better.
I learned that finding something new in what you love is possible, and helps get us through the saggy 'middles' of life.
Commitmentnow.com: Are sheep like pets? Do they love you and have a relationship with you?
Catherine: Sheep want to eat and be safe. To the extent we provide that, sheep tolerate us. They aren't pets. Even though we call sheep and cattle 'domestic animals,' they're not automatically tame. Of course, some farmers make pets of sheep, since sheep like to have their ears scratched...and their heads rubbed...and maybe hugged now and then... Lambs love to be held.
My favorite thing is to feed a bottle lamb until she’s stuffed, then sit on the porch swing and let her fall asleep in my lap.
Commitmentnow.com: What is the greatest challenge of owning a small farm and how has meeting these challenges changed and shaped who you are today?
Catherine: Reaching potential customers is always a problem because the food distribution system is set up for the large agricultural and food companies. Small farmers must get creative, but it really helps that people are starting to pay more attention to sustainable, local, and other 'non-traditional' agricultural methods. The internet has really helped farmers and consumers find each other.
Commitmentnow.com: What is the typical day of a sheep farmer like?
Catherine: Of course it depends on the type of shepherd, and how many sheep she raises, but on a grass-based operation like ours, everything revolves around moving the animals around the pasture. You set up temporary electric fences, fill a water trough, then move the sheep to fresh grass. A few days later, you do it again...and again...and again.
You must also watch for signs of illness or injury, and deal with that. Paying attention is important, but if you've done your job, the sheep pretty much take care of themselves.
Commitmentnow.com: What are some facts about sheep that few of us know or realize?
Catherine: Sheep have been living with humans for over 10,000 years. If you watch or play baseball, watch ballet or dance it, listen to the piano or play it, your life has been touched by sheep. Wool can be used for an amazing array of products, including some of the softest underwear you'll ever wear.
Sheepish is full of little moments when readers say "Oh, I didn't know that!" I love sharing these surprises with my readers, and hopefully they'll be a little more sheepish when they've finished the book. (Sheepish in this context means to love sheep and wool!)
To order Two Women, Fifty Sheep and Enough Wool to Save the Planet click here.
About the Author: A former 'city girl,' Friend lives on a small farm in southeastern Minnesota, where she and her partner Melissa raise sheep and cattle. She writes adult nonfiction, fiction, and children's books.
"The Compassionate Carnivore" won the Minnesota Book Award in General Nonfiction. Her memoir, "Hit by a Farm," was selected by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as one of the best books of 2006.
Her children's picture book, "The Perfect Nest," was chosen by the Wall Street Journal as one of five best 'read alouds,' and was nominated for numerous state reading awards.
She was awarded a Loft/McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers, and her adult adventure novels have won awards from the Golden Crown Literary Society and the Independent Book Publishers Association.
Friend has a M.S. in Economics and a B.A. in Economics and Spanish. She does chores, teaches writing workshops, and speaks at libraries, yarn shops and fiber festivals, professional organizations, and schools.
She's discovered that farm chores and snowshoes make Minnesota winters bearable, and is especially proud she's learned how to take the wool from her sheeps' backs and knit it into very cool socks.