MOUNT EATON, Ohio — John Kirkwood and his wife, Kathy, needed an activity they could enjoy together on weekends and during retirement.
They first tried gardening and planted large quantities of produce on their five-and-a half-acre Wayne County plot. For a couple years, they grew 250 strawberry plants, tended 30-some fruit trees, and, in another field, they planted 6,000 onion plants, and they harvested about 800 pounds of garlic, among other fruits and vegetables.
They enjoyed it, John said, but after some cancer was removed from his face, his doctor recommended he stay out of the sun as much as possible.
That’s when the couple of seven years turned to one of their other loves: raising sheep.
“We just eliminated the garden, and as we eliminated the garden, we increased the sheep,” he said.
The Kirkwoods now raise about 20 head of sheep for wool and, in April, opened a small retail store on their property, selling various crafts and home decorations made from their own sheep wool.
“It’s something we can both have” and “do together,” Kathy said.
She works for the Stark County Health Department, while John is a retired purchasing manager. Part of the reason they chose sheep is because of their love for animals.
“You’ve got to enjoy the animals,” John said, while standing inside a well-kept sheep barn he renovated from an older horse barn.
The gates are roughly three feet high — appropriate for his sheep. Everything is colorfully stained, with a clean, spacious pen and walls that have been insulated.
Through the open barn doors — in an attached pasture, stands a guard llama named Tumbleweed. Kathy calls for her to come into the barn, coaxing her with feed, and the llama and the rest of the sheep come with her.
Tumbleweed protects the sheep from predators and other dangers, the Kirkwoods said, and she earns her keep.
“We’ve seen her in action a couple different times,” John said.
She can lower her head, run fast, kick sideways and backwards, and spit, he said. If the sheep are in danger, she also herds them into the barn and out of harm’s way.
“Anything that gets in that pasture is fair game,” he said.
The Kirkwoods first used a donkey for the same reason, but the donkey turned out to be too aggressive.
“He kept the sheep herded up in such a tight (group), he wouldn’t let them eat,” John said.
John moved to the farm nine years ago on Thanksgiving Day. Every year, the couple improves their sheep and wool operation a little more.
The opening of the retail store is their most recent accomplishment. Before, they used their house basement as a store and made sales online through eBay. Their biggest sales come through wool and fabric shows they attend around the state, and in places as far away as Maryland.
A wide variety of wool products are made from washed wool, roving and raw wool, and home-spun yarn. They include decorative sheep, Christmas decorations, floor rugs, floral designs, bears, purses and much more.
The Kirkwoods typically raise Corriedale and Romney sheep and have them sheared twice a year on the farm. The products are either made by the Kirkwoods, or with the help of some local Amish friends, using the Kirkwood wool.
The products also are labeled with the name of the sheep from which the wool came.
“I can appreciate the fact that I can look out there and know where it came from,” Kathy said, holding a product made from a sheep named Beanie.
Wool has several advantages as a fabric: It’s soft, it’s warm, it wears well and it doesn’t burn, John said. And it’s also a “green” source of fabric, coming from a living animal that produces more wool each year.
The Kirkwoods’ wool products also appear in places like Wendell August Forge, The Inn at Honey Run, Roscoe Village and the Canton Museum of Art.
The Kirkwoods say they’re marketing as much wool as they can produce, and plan to increase their herd to 22-25 head next year. They’re also planning to start selling brown chicken eggs the end of the month, when about 90 head of pullets are due to start laying.