Sheep producer makes connection with land, animals

By Heather Carlile

LINDSTROM, Minn. — Sherry Stirling likes to have a connection with the land and to have animals, but she doesn’t want to be overwhelmed.

When she and her husband, Warren Johnson, move to Lindstrom, they started a small sheep flock.

Today, they have two riding horses and 20 sheep — two rams, the rest ewes — that spend their days on pasture at Grazeland Farm. (They took a cue from Elvis’ Graceland when naming their farm.) Their Merino/Dorset crosses have full coats now, but in a matter of weeks they’ll be sheared, producing 200 pounds of wool.


Some of that wool will be sent to Michigan to be made into yarn. Some of that yarn will be sent to Northland Woolens in Nelson to be made into socks. Stirling estimates that 100 pounds of wool can make 250 pairs.

Their wool has no chemicals; she likes the natural colors of light, dark, and a brownish mix of the two. She can also wash and card wool at her home to make roving for people who want to use wool in crafts. She direct markets her wool and wool products at farmers markets .

In addition to tending her flock and working part-time at the Chisago County Historical Society, Stirling is also the second vice president of the Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers Association. Part of her volunteer work with the group involves co-leading a Shepherd’s Clinic, which serves as a learning and networking opportunity for sheep producers.

"We want people to take classes and learn to be good shepherds," she said.

Their lambing season will begin around April 20. She has eight pregnant ewes this year and is expecting to have 15 lambs. She sells her market lambs and has them processed at one of three plants in the region. Then she picks up the pelts, takes them to a tannery in Wisconsin and sells them as well.

"We try to use the whole lamb, as they say," she said.

She keeps the female lambs to sell in starter flocks for other people looking to take care of sheep.

One of her big challenges is predators. Their black lab barks if there’s trouble, but Stirling said they lost five sheep last year alone to stray dogs and coyotes.


When she and Johnson walk out to greet their flock and give them corn, the baaing begins.

"They’re like kids in a candy store," she said.

In nearby Chisago City, Foster and Karen Mooney have their own sheep operation, but of the commercial nature. Their registered Hampshires are grown for their meat and are bred for carcass quality through rate of gain, multiple births and milk production. They’re also using DNA testing to build up scrapie resistance.

"The replacement ewes and stud rams all come from stock that carry the genetics we’re looking for," said Foster.

Their ewes have been sheared and their lambing season just recently finished. This year, they lambed 35 ewes and they have five rams.

They direct market everything they sell. Anyone wishing to get a lamb from the Mooney’s Jewel Lane Farm needs to put their order in a year ahead because they sell out quickly. Many of their customers are ethnic groups and are looking for parts of the lambs they can’t buy in the store.

"They want to buy directly from the farmer," Karen said.

But Foster warns that direct marketing is not for everyone. You have to like working with people.


For over 35 years, the Mooneys sold show sheep to Chisago County 4-H and FFA members. Now they devote that time of year to the vegetable side of their operation. They have 20 acres devoted to just about everything from sweet corn, cucumbers, green beans and squash to pumpkins, potatoes, onions and herbs.

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