Wonders of wool

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(Editor’s note: This story is the second in a three-part series on sheep farming. Each story focuses on a different type of sheep production. Read Part I here.)

PERRYSVILLE, Ohio – Jackie Deems talks about the animals on her farm the way most people talk about members of their family.
Her voice softens when she talks about Miss Ewokiniah Jane’s illness and death. She giggles when she thinks about Delphine’s loud, insistent greetings. Her voice is full of pride when she mentions there are three generations of Prince Phillip’s bloodline on the farm.
She bristles at the thought of any harm coming to her animals.
Deems is serious about her work at Amazing Grace Farm in Ashland County, where she raises two breeds of rare, primitive, miniature sheep used strictly for wool.
Shetland and Olde English “Babydoll” Southdown sheep are small – usually 18-24 inches at the withers and 70-100 pounds – but they produce a fleece that brings spinners running.
Wool. Deems sells nearly one-third of her fleeces before the sheep have even been shorn. The rest of it goes on eBay, where it usually sells for about $10 per pound, although it’s gone for as much as $49.55 per pound.
Each sheep produces an average of 4-6 six pounds of wool per year, although larger animals have been known to produce as much as 10-11 pounds.
Babydolls produce a very fine wool that can be likened to cashmere.
“You’ve got good fleece on both, just different types,” Deems said.
Shetlands produce 11 colors of wool, from white to gray to pure black. About one-third of the 70 Shetlands at Amazing Grace have a wool color called emsket, which is a rare, bluish-gray shade. Deems’ highest-selling fleeces are from the emsket Shetlands.
Country life. The shepherdess has always had a soft spot in her heart for four-legged creatures. She began rescuing animals at just 5 years old and it’s a job she never quit.
Fourteen years ago Deems and her husband, Chuck, gave up life in the city and moved to greener pastures. The adventure started with llamas, and at one point, most of their 42-head herd were rescued animals.
While raising llamas, Deems often got calls from people looking for guard llamas to put in with sheep or goats. After awhile, she decided it would probably be easier for the llamas if they had some exposure to the smaller animals before leaving the farm.
So, Deems got two wethers and put in them in a pen next to the llamas. It didn’t go over so well: The llamas spent their time running away from the sheep.
While her idea didn’t go according to plan, Deems soon realized she liked the sheep. A lot.
She also became interested in wool and found that smaller animals were easier to handle.
Before long, she bought six Shetland ewes and two rams. A few months later, 16 more ewes, a wether and three more rams came to the farm.
The first Babydoll, Miss Ewokiniah Jane, was added about five years ago after Deems couldn’t resist her cuddly exterior.
“I really just got her because she was so darn cute,” Deems said.
Again, it wasn’t long before one became two, two became four and four became a flock that numbers 30 animals. Today, Deems is one of only 300 registered Babydoll breeders in the country.
Selective. Deems breeds about 12 ewes every year, which produces 12-24 lambs. The shepherdess has a waiting list of people wanting to buy her animals, but she is selective about where her lambs go.
She does not send any of her animals to auction or market and will not sell to anyone who would send them there.
“My responsibility, I feel like, is to find them the best home they can have,” she said.
Also, Deems does not ship her animals, but instead asks buyers to pick them up from the farm. And she always sells two at a time so they aren’t alone at their new home.
“I always try to think, ‘what’s the best thing for the animal?,'” Deems said.
While she knows many people don’t quite understand her approach to raising sheep, Deems said she wants others to see that sheep are not disposable.
The adult wethers can be a hard sell, but spinners are often interested in buying them since the sheep produce wool their entire lives, regardless of gender.
Deems’ flocks, which are in a volunteer scrapie program, are closed and animals don’t leave the farm unless they’ve been sold.
Variety. In addition to selling raw fleeces and processed roving, Deems has come up with other ways to increase the value of her flock. She hand-dyes sheep-wool yarn and roving, plus she sells hand-knitted wool shawls and scarves.
She also uses her flock as a subject for original, framed sheep photography. Other sale items include sheep jewelry, Ewokiniah Jane’s meals-in-a-can and Sheepydoo Fertilizer.
Deems markets her products on eBay, at wool shows and through Amazing Grace’s Web site.
The sheep are sold for several uses including spinners’ flocks, breeding purposes, pets and “natural lawnmowers.”
“I think it’s smart to market different things,” Deems said.
Babydoll sheep can also be used as therapy animals, according to Deems. Their calm, laid-back temperament makes them good candidates for visits to nursing homes and visits with special needs children.
A life. For Deems, raising sheep is about far more than just the bottom line.
“They’re not just a way for me to make money,” she said. “They’re not a livelihood, they’re a life.”
And she’s been calmer, more patient and more caring since beginning her career as a shepherdess.
“I think when you learn about caring for animals, you learn about caring for people,” she said.
And that’s an attitude Deems can’t wait to share.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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