Lending a hand to youth in the sheep industry

CEW-MR-2-Clarkshire Farms7869by Sally Colby

Although living on a farm is an advantage for young people who are interested in activities such as 4-H and FFA, it’s harder for non-farm youngsters to participate — unless someone provides an opportunity.
John and Pat Clark have provided that opportunity for youth in their area. After raising their two daughters on their Mohawk, NY, farm, they help other youth who are interested in sheep.

“We had two girls, so we had to get two breeds of sheep,” said Clark, explaining the family’s start with sheep. Daughter Mary was attracted to Southdowns because they’re shown slick-shorn, and Andrea chose Oxfords for their appearance — black button eyes, little triangular black noses and a full fleece. Both girls were active in 4-H sheep club and successfully exhibited sheep at county fairs, the New York State Fair, Rhinebeck and at the Cooperstown Farmer’s Museum Show.

After Mary and Andrea moved on to pursue careers, John and Pat created ‘Team Clarkshire’. “We have about seven 4-Hers who come to the farm and work, then they can show sheep that are in their name,” said John. Two of the original team members are Schylar Reed, who shows Oxfords, and Katelyn Reed, who shows Southdowns. “Katelyn has developed her own flock, and won the Livestock Cup at the Junior Livestock Show at the Farmer’s Museum Show this year,” said John. “Schylar was master showman at New York State Fair.”

John and Pat are keenly aware of the ever-changing standards for show sheep, and agree that it’s important to attend shows to see what’s going on in each of the breeds. “Each breed has a standard as to how they want sheep to be shown,” said John. “Right now, the Oxfords are shown in a short fleece, and the Southdowns are shown slick shorn. Southdowns were the first breed to go to slick shorn, and they (the breed organization) thinks that that has a lot of youth stay involved. It’s important for us to go to shows to make sure we’re breeding quality animals, but in the end, you have to like what you have. We always listen to the judge’s reasons, but if he picks a sheep and I don’t like it, we don’t keep it.”

Clarkshire Farms continually improves the flock through purchasing rams from reputable top breeders who have been successful in the show ring and have the kind of offspring they’re looking for. “It’s a lot easier to spend money on a ram because you’re going to get a lot more out of him than if you buy a ewe,” said John, adding that they also purchase good ewe genetics. “If we purchase from reputable breeders, they’re always quick to help us if we have a situation.” The Clarks have found it valuable to show ram lambs to get judges’ evaluations and compare them to the rest of the flock.

Prior to lambing, which begins in January, sheep are separated into groups and fed according to body condition. Pat says that the smaller Southdowns tend to become overweight, while the larger Oxfords need more feed. Ewes that weren’t shorn in fall are crutched in December. Ewes lamb in a community pen, and can be moved to smaller groups as necessary. When it comes to triplets, Pat says that they’ll allow all three to stay with the ewe for several days, then the largest lamb is sent to the ‘orphanage’ to be raised on a bottle.

During lambing, Pat keeps record book in the barn, and in addition to essential information about ewes and lambs, she’ll record her first impressions of new lambs as they’re born. Those initial observations help determine which lambs will be retained and developed for the show ring.

In addition to selling lambs for purebred breeding stock, Pat has developed a farmers’ market trade for marketing lamb. “It has really helped our business,” she said. “We attend the Cooperstown Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and found that some customers will eventually purchase directly from the farm.” The Cooperstown market is juried, which means that each vendor has had to meet stringent requirements, including a farm inspection, to sell there.

The Clarks use a USDA processer who is willing to work with them to prepare the cuts they want. When they first started selling lamb, the Clarks offered traditional cuts, then as customers started to make requests, they ordered certain cuts to meet those requests. “There’s a seasonality to it,” said Pat. “During summer, people want cuts for the grill; like leg steaks, rib chops or butterflied boneless leg of lamb. In winter, people want stews and roasts.”

Pat says that interacting with people at the farmers’ market has helped her understand what customers want. “We have hot Italian and breakfast sausage in bulk, and it’s super-lean,” she said. “Ground lamb is really popular.” At market, the Clarks provide samples as well as basic cooking instructions. Pat says one popular sample is lamb meatloaf, which has helped sell a lot of ground lamb.

Area restaurants have also become interested in the Clarks’ fresh lamb. “Because of the emphasis on local food, some of the restaurants will feature our lamb for a particular night,” John explained. “A couple of restaurant chefs will come to market and ask what I have, and they’ll put it on the menu the following week.”

Pat noted that the farmers’ market has been a good outlet for educating animal rights sympathizers who believe that people shouldn’t eat meat. She takes the opportunity to explain the care their animals receive. “They don’t have rights because they don’t have responsibilities,” said Pat as she explained how she handles sensitive questions. “But we have the responsibility to take care of them and not waste one bit of them.”

Visit Clarkshire Farms on Facebook and online at www.clarkshirefarms.com .

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