DALTON, Ohio — What began as a creative effort to clear some pasture on a hobby farm near Mount Gilead has evolved into a first-class lamb operation.
Fred and Sally Johnson, of South Wenger Road near Dalton, were living on an 8-acre hobby farm in 1973, when Sally’s father, Kenneth Renner, made the suggestion to buy sheep.
“He said you don’t need to be mowing that pasture, you need to have something eating that pasture,” Fred Johnson recalled.
And so began their sheep herd, starting with just a few and gradually building over the years to their present-day herd of about 55 ewes that give birth to about 75 lambs each year.
Most of the Johnson lambs are bred and raised for show, and over the years they’ve become a popular supplier across Ohio and beyond.
In 2002 — the same year the couple relocated to a farm in Dalton — their son, Andy, won the sheep show at the Ohio State Fair. And just this past year, a Johnson lamb won grand champion again.
Fred and Sally raise sheep along with their son, Allen, who lives nearby. The two herds are separate, but the families share resources and expertise.
And they’ve gained a lot of “expertise,” having won the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville in 2009, and various county fair championships.
But Sally said it’s taken time to get where they’re at, and it didn’t all come at once. She said they had been taking sheep to the state year for 27 years before they ever won.
“We went from walking into one end of the barn and show ring, to walking out the other end, to thrilled when we made the cut, and then thrilled when we made the top 20,” she said.
The state champion in 2002 came from Allen Johnson’s herd, but it was an accomplishment for all the Johnsons.
“The win wasn’t just Andrew’s,” Sally said. “It was something we had worked for 27 years so it was a win for the whole family.”
Last year’s grand champion Ohio lamb was shown by MacKenzie Fruchey, of Fulton County, and sold for $43,000 to the Kroger Co. It came from Fred and Sally’s herd.
The couple moved to the farm in Dalton because they loved the rolling hills of the property and the scenic view. The buildings have been renovated and sided, and the property has a well-kept appearance.
The farm is about 85 acres and is rented to Sally’s brother, Ted Renner. He supplies them with the hay and straw they need each year, grown and harvested on the farm.
Along with Allen, 41, the couple has three other adult sons — Brent, Phillip and Andrew. Sally’s brother-in-law — Roger High — is executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association.
Fred and Sally have nine grandchildren who are just getting started with show lambs and will likely continue the Johnson success. The couple were both long-time 4-H advisers and Allen Johnson is still an adviser.
“We think 4-H is an awesome program,” Sally said. “We felt that if we wanted our kids to be in it, we had to be involved with it. We both had really good experiences in 4-H.”
Although Fred and Sally’s herd is separate from their son, Allen, both hold events and share information to better the family name. Their lambs compete against each other, but the families don’t.
“We’re happy when he has some lambs in the winner’s circle, and vice versa,” Fred said.
Raising lambs is also a retirement project for the Johnsons. Sally is a retired hair dresser and Fred retired from the National Guard, as an aircraft maintenance technician.
Fred Johnson said the show sheep business keeps him active and focussed each day. There’s always the breeding schedule, the feeding and grooming, shows to travel to and everything in-between.
“I think you need to have a plan for retirement,” Fred said. “It’s (sheep) something that’s not a huge amount of work but at least it’s something that my mind is on all the time. Not everyone can raise market lambs but everyone ought to be figuring out what they’re doing to do in retirement.”