Shepherd takes the whole shebang

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NORTH BENTON, Ohio – Sometimes farming isn’t about bushels per acre, how much milk can be squeezed from a cow, or preserving precious land.

Sometimes it’s about farming for the sheer fun of it.

Or the competition.

Such is the case for Gale Diehl, showpiece showman and Shropshire shepherd.

Always the competitor, Diehl has paraded his first-class flock at shows across Ohio and Pennsylvania for 45 years – winning blue ribbons and shiny trophies the whole way.

Well, not quite the whole way.

Memories of Molly. Winter 1932. Nine-year-old Gale Diehl was already helping on his parents’ dairy farm in Portage County when a neighbor gave him his first lamb.

Young Diehl immediately adopted her, naming the tiny orphan Molly. In a quiet spot behind the old wood-burning stove in the kitchen, he kept her in a box, nursing her every few hours.

His touch worked. The young lamb soon moved to the barn and then to adulthood.

Several years later, Diehl bought four Shropshire ewes from his cousin for a 4-H project. It’s been Shropshires ever since.

Show fever. It wasn’t until Diehl was 25 that he got the “show bug.”

He needed a new ram to breed his ewes, and off he went to the county fair, in search of a good-looking ram. But he couldn’t find any. Sure, some looked OK, but he was convinced his at home looked even better. So he stuck with his own, kept breeding and started showing.

Five years passed. No one agreed with Diehl that his rams had what it took. He continued coming home from shows empty-handed.

Finally, he found a judge who agreed. Diehl got his first blue ribbon and a new wave of confidence in 1963.

Just a few years later, he packed up his bags and his sheep for a bigger show, Pennsylvania’s Keystone International Livestock Exposition. County fairs were one thing, but could he hang with the “big” boys?

Ouch? “I’m a glutton for punishment,” Diehl laughed about his first time at the expo in 1968.

But that punishment must not be too hard on him because Diehl has made the 275-mile trip to Harrisburg ever since.

In fact, Diehl has made quite a name for himself at the show. In the last eight years, he has been named premier breeder or premier exhibitor five times. The other years he settled for second.

Not bad for “punishment.”

Top flock. Diehl hasn’t only picked up kudos from the Keystone competition. He’s been to every county fair from Lucas to Coshocton to Ashtabula, not to mention countless trips over the border into western Pennsylvania and to Kentucky’s North American International Livestock Exposition.

At this year’s National Shropshire Show at the Ohio State Fair, all 11 of the sheep he took placed in the top 10 of their classes, which had upward of 30 entrants each.

Who gets credit for these superior sheep? Diehl. He breeds all of his own sheep and hasn’t bought a ewe in almost 20 years. The only thing he buys are rams, and they’re just used for breeding.

Most of the white nubby bodies and black faces of his flock resemble each other – something he says judges like to see.

“I’ve had more people tell me I have one of the most outstanding ewe flocks in the country, and if you have good ewes, you have good yearlings for show,” he said.

A little help from friends. Although Diehl usually shows his sheep himself, he can’t take all the glory. His sons, John and Don, daughter-in-law Sharon, and grandchildren help prepare the animals for shows. Another friend, Dave Clouser of Polk, Ohio, shears the sheep and hauls them to 12 county fairs.

Diehl typically shows with his son John under the name JL & GL Diehl. Just look at a few show results, the name pops up constantly.

Between their two flocks – John’s is in Trumbull County – they have the third largest Shropshire ewe flock in the country, Diehl said.

At his farm in North Benton, Ohio, Diehl and his wife, Carol, have 45 pregnant ewes, three stud rams, 15 ewe lambs and four ram lambs for show.

Questions. After working for East Ohio Gas Company for 39 years, Diehl was ready to retire. Coincidentally, his retirement in 1995 has coincided with a winning streak spanning eight years and umpteen shows.

This year alone, he won Shropshire champion and reserve champion sale ewe, champion ewe, premier breeder and premier exhibitor at the Keystone show.

Is there anything left for this Shropshire sensation to win?

Just one thing: premier breeder at the state fair.

Can he do it?

It’s usually the most competitive show of all, Diehl admits. But, like he says, he’s competitive and a glutton for punishment. Chances are in his favor.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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