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.