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Ian & Raven raveian@wolston.com 541-971-0372


The Education of a New Farmer

by Raven OKeefe

Envision a cross between the Garden of Eden and Atlantis: Oregon.

Two months ago I packed up my life and my two very reluctant cats, kissed my friends goodbye, and left my home in sweet Montana and moved to Oregon to start a new life as a sheep farmer with my partner Ian. Leaving a quiet little town in the middle of Big Sky Country, I suddenly found myself on a 55-acre, wet, muddy farm with 80-some sheep, one big goofy Pyrenees guard dog, five Border Collies, two furious kitties, and us two humans determined and excited to make this farm not just our home but our dream.

Now let me admit this up front: I've always never wanted to be a farmer. Most of my childhood friends, as we grew up in southwestern Wisconsin, just assumed they'd end up on farms. It never crossed my mind for a moment. But we all know how Fate snickers at our plans. First I accidentally went to a herding trial six years ago, fell irredeemably in love with Border Collies and trialing, and abandoned my commercial graphics career to spend my life drawing portraits of Border Collies and other stockdogs. Then in June of 2000 at a trial in Washington, I met my TrueLove, Ben, the dog of my dreams, and his human, Ian. I fell for them both like a ton of gold dust, and thus began walking a new trail that has now led me here to the middle of the beautiful but incredibly soggy Willamette Valley in northwest Oregon, learning to be a farmer.

We moved in just two months ago. Sometimes it feels as if we've been here forever (then it's "How can we have been here so long and have accomplished so little!?") Other times it seems like we just arrived ("How have we managed to get so much done in such a short time?") The first thing I learned about farming is: there is always more to do than you have time/energy/money for. But you do it anyway.

The second thing I learned is that there is more water in Oregon than in the rest of the world combined, or at least it seems that way. The sheer volume of moisture is staggering to a displaced Montana girl, and I'm constantly being astounded by it. Finding a lake one morning where a pasture had been just the night before, for example, tends to challenge my tenuous grip on reality. I try to keep from being discouraged by reminding myself that (a) at least it's fairly warm here unlike Montana's icy winter temperatures, and (b) rain does not have to be either shoveled or plowed. We do, however, find ourselves out digging emergency drainage trenches with distressing frequency, as the instant lakes advance menacingly toward the barn and the house. Should we be planting rice rather than hay? Should we be raising fishes rather than sheep? Questions that sneak into our minds as we slog and sog and dig.

But no, it's sheep for us, and I now have five of my very own. Following up on a classified ad we happened to notice in last Saturday's paper, we drove to a little farm near Corvallis to buy five supposedly-bred Shetland ewes, sweet little flighty things, about two-thirds the size of our Scottish Black-face sheep. Since it was I who wanted them, they are now "My Girls," and I expect to learn a lot in a hurry by taking care of them. Ian is an experienced farmer and knows most of what we need to know already; I know nothing but am excited about learning. He has done all of the things we want to do before, in other places, and has a detailed plan for how we want it all to work; I am more than ready to be support troops and do lots of grunt work.

Meanwhile, our life charges ahead at warp speed with new experiences and adventures. We buy seeds, we plan our garden; we plan to have our farm certified organic within three years, so that we can sell organic lamb, wool, and vegetables. We dig endless drainage ditches. We pull our mired truck out of the gooey muck of the pasture. We fix holes in the fences, and put up new fence. We meet our neighbors when their sheep wander into our fields, or our guard dog shows up in their driveway. I buy a book in a used-book store just for its title, "Rains All the Time." We lose a ewe and her two unborn lambs to viral encephalitis, after a long sad vigil over Christmas. We get exhausted and temporarily discouraged, we get fired with enthusiasm, we goggle at how much we have to learn about our new home and how much we'll need to do to make it all happen, we beam with delight in anticipation of it all.

Stay tuned: I'll take you with us.

-- Raven OKeefe

Scio OR, January 2002