Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On an Amish Sheep Farm—my Doc Martin’s will never be the same

                                                                            Picture by my friend, Hannah Spreadbury

I am in the midst of writing a story that involves the Amish. So, with a need for accurate information, I went with a dear friend of mine to her in-law’s sheep farm. Growing up in Lancaster County, farms and sheep have always interested me—"interested me" meaning I love to visit and explore and learn new things, then leave at the end of the day because farming is not my calling. It takes a special kind of person to be a farmer.

Okay, I’m sure you’ve already seen this, but I had to insert it here anyway. Good stuff.

What was unique about last night’s experience was that it was an Amish sheep farm. Nicki, my darling friend, married a man who was raised Amish. He, however, did not join the Amish church—thus was free to marry Nicki, an “English” girl as the Amish call non-Amish people. So while farming is a hard life, Amish farming is even more difficult because of the limitations their beliefs and the church put on the daily running of things. As a very basic example, the only time we were able to make our way to the farm was in the evening after dinner, and, being winter, that means it is dark. I didn’t consider this a problem until we arrive and I remember: Oh, duh, no electricity. Nicki and I pull out our cell phones with our nifty flashlight apps and start waving them around, terrorizing 2 poor pregnant ewes who were trying to sleep. Bless the farmer’s heart, he arrives with 2 enormous flashlights (battery-powered, of course, which are allowed) and takes us back to visit the preggie ewes and their horse Snazz who is their main mode of transportation.

We then go down to the pasture to a different barn where the younger sheep of the herd (basically the teenagers of the bunch) reside. We wade through sucking mud and sheep sh*t—and I’m not cussing, this is the “official” Lancaster County word for animal poo—and as the barn door creaks open and the flashlights cut into the gloom, there are 10 pairs of glowing eyes peering back at us. It was hilarious and eerie all at once.

See what I mean?! Its like Shaun the Sheep alien attack!
The most hilarious part was to watch the behavior of these “teenage” sheep. One sheep would stick its head out the opening of the barn that leads to the pasture. Then two more come up so all three have their heads poking through the opening. Then the rest push up, jostling the front sheep grudgingly forward through the opening. Since the front sheep have moved forward, the rest assume it is safe to proceed, so the whole herd ambles ahead until all ten of them are outside. If you wait, literally, within 2 to 3 minutes, one sheep head will appear back inside the opening, followed by two more. Then, with some ornery bleating, they all start piling back inside the barn to assume the same position they were just in only minutes ago. (My goodness, the biblical comparison of people to sheep is apt.)

But my favorite part was the lambs—there were two lambs that were only four days old and they jostled and bumped around their pen next to their mama. And I could hardly hold in my squeals of delight at their adorableness.

This picture SO does not do these cuties justice.
 The entire evening was so fascinating and informative. The farmer (who I’ll keep nameless because these are a private people) answered my bazillion questions frankly and openly and I could tell that he loved to talk about his work. I finally asked him, “Do you enjoy what you do?”

“Oh, yah,” he says with a strong Germanic drawl. “I do.” And he wears the look of a man doing what he is meant to be doing.

It reminded me of that moment in Chariots of Fire when Eric Liddell is talking to his sister and he says, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” I think those of us who have experienced that moment of knowing we are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing would nod in agreement with Eric and with my friend, the Amish farmer. His work may not be seen by the world as “important”—he raises a family, tends to sheep, goes to church, lives quietly—but his work is important because it is the work he has been given. And he finds contentment in it. May we all be so blessed.


Here are some other things I learned last night:

1. The sheep this farmer raises are Dorper sheep and they shed their wool—they don’t need sheared! (And once they shed their wool it lays like sloughed snake skin on the ground til the farmer picks it up and throws it away.)
2. Sheep need their hooves clipped, just like we need our toe nails clipped. (Dorpers need theirs clipped about 3 times a year; some other breeds need it done only once a year.)
3. Sheep, unlike goats, will eat something that doesn’t agree with them (i.e. thistles, etc) only once and learn never to eat it again. (Not quite so dumb as I thought.)
4. You have to lead sheep, you can’t drive them or chase them or shoo them productively anywhere. This farmer, when moving them from pasture to pasture, gets out some grain and holds the food in front of them and, because they move only in herds, once you hook one, they all will follow wherever the farmer leads. (I don’t think this tactic is specific to sheep J)
5. The Amish Mafia is one big, fat farce. Nicki and her family know several of those involved in the show, and it’s all manufactured. There’s maybe 5% truth to any of it—but it’s just enough truth to manipulate into “reality TV”—which is a shame because 1) those producing the show know better, having come from an Amish background & 2) it serves only to further distort a culture that is already greatly misunderstood.

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  1. How fascinating! There were a lot of Amish in the part of Illinois where I spent much of my childhood. And my dad's side of the family are Apostolic Christian, so....basically Amish in all discernible ways. I'm so curious to hear about your work-in-progress! Did you get to pet any of the sheep or lambs?!

    1. Yes, those Amish get around--well, as long as there's farmland. And no, I didn't pet any sheep, mostly because they wouldn't come near this jabbering, flashlight-wielding nitwit. But if I stood there long enough--after staring at me unblinking for about 10 minutes--they'd start to come nearer. Apparently sheep are highly inquisitive. So the adage should maybe be "curiosity killed the sheep" not the cat. My "Amish" project is actually a collection of short stories I'm hoping to use for my senior thesis for Spalding. Still in the very early stages.

  2. I love field trips! Maybe I should be writing fiction so I can take research trips to see cute sheep. When I saw your sheep photo I immediately thought "Shaun the Sheep!" so I'm glad we think alike. Good luck with this project. This is really fascinating.

    1. Um, I don't think you need to write fiction to go on field trips, but I could be mistaken :) And if you're ever in PA, I've got a great sheep farm for you to visit--bring the kiddos. Thanks for the well-wishes, Amy!

  3. Enjoyed your post, Anna! I love sheep, used to have a flock myself and I miss them so much. Especially this time of year when they're lambing. I LOVE lambs. And my grandma was brought up Amish, as well. :-)

    1. I love that you can say "used to have a flock myself." And I told the farmer I was gonna bring my kiddos back because they would go crazy over those adorable lambs. It sounds as though you have such a rich and interesting heritage!

  4. i'm so glad you got to go to see the sheep. if you write a story on cattle farming will you come and visit our farm. we have cows, horses donkeys, llamas and chickens. you are welcome to pet and photo them to your heart's delight. farming is very satisfying work. you live with the rhythm of the days and seasons. the life can be hard and sparse but it can also be filled with so much peace.

    1. I would LOVE to come visit your farm. As I said, I love farms and the way of life, and I admire those who have been called to farming. It seems the occupations where you work with your hands, offers great satisfaction. My husband does alot of carpentry and I can see on his face the satisfaction he gains from that - even more so, at times, than his "real job" offers. If I ever write about cattle farming, I'll be sure to give you a call. Thank you, Bev!

  5. I am enthralled by the Amish lifestyle...the faith, family, and work ethic. Beverly Lewis is one of my favorite authors. I'll be looking forward to reading your novel. :0)

    1. To be honest, Debbi, growing up in the thick of Amish country, I was never enthralled by them. I saw them as stand-offish and gruff, and their buggies a hassle when trying to get anywhere quickly. However, once I started writing, for some reason, I seemed to see them with "fresh" eyes. They were curious to me, their set-apart-ness and quiet existence. and there's something appealing in that. Yet, as I delve deeper, it has its dark patches too--a darkness that not many writers capture. I admit that I haven't read any Beverly Lewis, but I find that fiction writers tend to romanticize the Amish culture, and while I think it's often a mis-understood culture, I don't think it's as romantic and idyllic as it's often made out to be. I suppose this might be part of the reason why it intrigues me to so much. But I will try to get my hands on some Beverly Lewis--I'll be interested to see how she captures the Amish lifestyle. Thanks, Debbi!


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