ZANESVILLE, Ohio – Pull into County Ridge Farm and see pastures brimming with thick, green forage. Watch sheep lazily chew their cud while tiny balls of woolly fuzz nurse under their bellies. And listen to nothing but the buzz of a few birds.
It’s just what you might imagine a farm to be … minus the perfect rows of whitewashed fence, the towering red barn and the row of gleaming tractor behemoths.
Anyone could visit this simple farm and go home saying, “I think I can do this, too.”
That’s exactly what Daryl and Joyce hope people realize when they visit their rotational grazing sheep farm in Zanesville, Ohio.
Fair warning. Daryl was upfront with his intentions when he began dating Joyce.
“I’m going to want to end up farming,” he warned her.
She’d grown up bottle-feeding sheep at her grandfather’s farm and she knew Daryl had a dairy background so she assured him they could handle his plans.
By 1969, they’d moved to Muskingum County, bought their first sheep and were on their way to fulfilling Daryl’s goal.
Ag educator. The years brought change after change, on and off the farm.
Daryl worked as a vocational agriculture teacher and then as an ag educator in Muskingum County for 18 years.
After he retired in 1992, he became pastor of his local church until he was coaxed back into working for Ohio State University Extension.
In 1998, he promised Noble County he’d be the part-time ag educator for one year. That year has stretched into seven and he’s still working in that position.
But even more changes have taken place on the farm.
Switching sheep. Daryl and Joyce began in the late 1960s with black-faced sheep that mainly stayed in the barn and ate stored feed and grain.
Next, it was Dorsets and then by the mid-1980s Daryl began thinking it would be nice to have animals that could stay outside and lamb on grass. So, he bought some Merino sheep, and shortly afterward, his son Nate began showing Cheviots.
As that pasture-based farming idea took hold, Daryl realized he needed to make bigger changes.
He needed sheep that didn’t mind standing outside on windy, rainy days and would graze no matter the weather.
Following his own advice, he tried to find other farmers who were successfully operating this way. But he couldn’t find any, so it was up to him to develop new genetics.
He began with short-bodied, heavy-muscled Dorsets that would breed during any season, providing a constant income flow.
The only problem is he could only find “barn Dorsets” that were not used to being outside year-round.
Daryl bought these sheep and began breeding them, slowly weeding out those that couldn’t tolerate being outside.
At first, he said four out of 10 ewe lambs would meet the criteria and the rest would have to be sold. Now, that number is closer to 10 of 10, although he says it’s still a work in progress. More than 100 mature Dorsets now fill his fields.
In addition, he also has a 40-head flock of Cheviots, which he says thrive in the outside environment but lamb only in the spring and are high-strung.
Life’s lessons. In his roles as both an ag educator and a farmer, Daryl gets many questions from young people wanting beginners’ advice.
He uses his own farm as an example.
“We’ve always tried to live frugal,” he said. “Our farm has a threadbare look, not a lot of frills.”
But it’s clean, well-kept, and the sheep are healthy and content.
The key is to start slow, he says; get a few sheep at a time and don’t buy what you can’t afford.
People usually financially overextend themselves because they think they need big equipment for crops, he said. Put the sheep on pasture and buy what little supplemental feed you need, he recommended.
Once you get started, try having the farm pay for itself, he said, adding that he doesn’t use his off-farm income toward the farm; the sheep going to market must pay for themselves.
“We’re not in it to get rich,” he said. “But we’re not in it to have pets either.”
The Clarks now sell their sheep to other farmers who want animals for a grass-based operation, and they also sell at auction to a mostly ethnic market.
Same story, different farm. Although things are quiet at County Ridge Farm now, development is inching closer.
One hundred acres down the road were just sold and 26 homes are being built there. And it’s the same story on the rest of the land surrounding their 92-acre patch.
But Daryl and Joyce are not worried.
The concern is not how neighbors will react being so close to farm, they said. Instead, they are confident their new neighbors will see them as an asset to the community, maybe even drawing people to the new housing.
“They can live next to sheep,” Daryl said. “It’s socially friendly, but a lot of what we do in agriculture is not, because of concentrated waste.”
With this pasture-based operation, flies and manure aren’t an issue, he said.
“It is possible for this to be a farm that survives in the neighborhood,” Daryl said.
He hopes people visiting his farm realize all this and use it as another reason to go home saying, “I can have low inputs, have healthy sheep, be successful, and have a farm that others also enjoy. I think I can do this, too.”
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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