With her prize-winning registered Border Leicester sheep flock, Lydia Smith is a beginning farmer to watch. Lydia’s business, Echo Ridge Flock, sells breeding stock, feeder lambs, raw fleeces, wool blankets, pelts and meat, and provides shearing services for other small farms. Lydia started her business six years ago at age 14.
Lydia’s farm business was a natural off-shoot to her family’s farm, Vinegar Ridge Farm, in Charlotte, Vermont. Lydia was two-years old in 2000 when her parents purchased two Romney ewe lambs, soon followed by some Border Leicesters and the flock grew exponentially.
“At first, it was a fun little hobby that I didn’t take too seriously. When my older sister went to college and found herself too busy for sheep, another sister and I took over the management of the flock. Then, something clicked,” she says.”
“Two years later, at 14-years-old, I purchased my first sheep and Echo Ridge Flock began. Now, we have twenty-five brood ewes on about ten acres. I make the majority of the genetic and nutritional decisions,” Lydia says.
Most of Lyda’s sheep are registered Border Leicesters, a handful are registered Lincolns and a few are crossbreds.
While logistics limited Lydia’s enrollment in 4-H to just one year, she feels part of the 4-H community and says, “Without 4-H, I would not have seen those kids mature into the strong individuals they are today. Each of us has had our struggles through the years and the sheep community has become the safe space for a lot of hurting kids.”
Lydia has formed many deep relationships, gained confidence, and learned lessons beyond raising sheep through the sheep showing community. Lydia described Joe Seavey, “a grumpy old shepherd from New York. He told me that shearing was the only way to truly know my flock. He was right; through shearing, Joe demanded excellence, yet was not competitive in the typical sense, saying, ‘The only person you should compete with is yourself.’ Essentially, I only had to be better than I was yesterday. I work a little harder and stand a little taller today because of that man.”
While Lydia’s knowledge of sheep is ahead of her years, it was at Vermont Tech where she took business and agricultural classes that could be directly applied to her current business. Growing up on a small farm, Lydia could build her flock without purchasing any infrastructure or equipment initially, building her little business piece by piece. While she knows other new farmers are in a different situation, she observes that “retired farms and farmers are often available and willing to help startups for a low rate. I use pastures on two other properties to extend my grazing. Without my sheep, those properties would be mowed or left to overgrow.”
UVM New Farmer Project’s Suzy Hodgson talked with Lydia about her growing a business while growing up.
SH: What has surprised you about sheep farming?
LS: You are never done learning. Every lambing season, my ewes teach me something new. Every season, the weather is different and my management must adjust accordingly. I am always working to improve and therefore I am always discovering and trying new things. I make new mistakes every year, but also get closer to producing the animals I want. Sheep have a knack for getting themselves into trouble. I never thought I would perform CPR or treat concussions. Many a diapered lamb has slept in my bed.
SH: If you could rewind the clock, is there anything you would have done differently?
LS: I would go back and sit a little longer with the old guys. They have so much to teach us, something I did not fully appreciate until I was fifteen or sixteen. While they taught me so much, I could have learned more. Above all, there are individuals that I never got to thank. Farmers in general and shepherds specifically are a dying breed. The industry has lost many key figures in recent years. I hope that I can share a bit of what I learned from them with the next generation.
SH: Any tips or pointers you’d like to share about sheep raising?
LS: 1. If you do not truly love what you do, get out now. There is no room for the undecided.If you simply like sheep and think they are cute, get a few fiber animals and leave it at that. Raising any livestock is heartbreaking at times. The good days will outweigh the bad, but it often does not feel that way. I have had days where I considered selling the whole lot, days that just seemed too hard. Then a healthy lamb is born and a sick one turns around and I get up and do it another day.”
2. Go sit with the old, cranky guy in the corner. Ask about his animals and then just listen. You will learn more from him than any textbook. Perhaps during lambing you’ll remember a trick from one of his rambling stories and save your first lamb. Maybe you’ll identify an illness that much sooner because he had ten cases one year.
3. Do your research before selecting a breed. I don’t mean in a book. Talk to actual breeders raising the specific breeds you are interested in under similar conditions. The most common problem I see is new shepherds’ impulse buying sheep based on appearance or biased advice. Every breed association and many breeders only highlight the traits they think people want to hear. Bloodlines behave differently in different regions and management systems. Find a breeder whose sheep you like and who you trust. At the end of the day, you have to like the sheep in your barn.
SH: How your farm changed since you started, and why did you made these changes?
LS: While the products have remained the same, the priorities have shifted at times. When the flock began, it was purely for fiber. When my oldest sisters decided to show the sheep, an emphasis was placed on appearance and the production was poor. In recent years, the goals have shifted to producing the best purebred possible that can excel with minimal input. Few local breeders care about the showring; they want animals that thrive in the harshest conditions. For me, that market is the most valuable. I also have focused in on the type and color of fleece I want to produce, which has given me access to a bigger fleece market.
SH: What’s next? Where do you hope to take your farm skills over the next few years?
LS: Through showing sheep, I have made many connections. One of these has led me to pursue a career in Delaware. With the current economic climate, affording my own Vermont farm is many years off, and jobs in my field are a bit scarce. Delaware presents many new opportunities and experiences for a recent college graduate in the agricultural industry. Someday, I hope to bring my little flock back to the state that will probably always be my home. In the meantime, I’ll pack up my crew and head down this winter. Fifteen sheep, two goats, a dog, and a twenty-year-old – what could possibly go wrong?”
LS: How do you manage risk?
There is only so much you can do to manage risk on a farm. We are at the mercy of the weather not only locally but nationally. Feed and fuel prices are beyond our control. Disease can plague even the best managed flock. We all have bad years. Minimizing the damage is the best we can do by having a plan for any crisis.