Tag Archives: sheep

On a recent Friday morning in September, rancher John Peavey stood waiting outside Wood River Welding on Main Street in Bellevue. His flock, the 2,800 ewes of the Flat Top Sheep Co., was waiting, too, 10 miles south of town. Peavey’s trailer broke an axle hauling the metal piping of a portable corral to meet them for shearing, an annual rite of fall.

“The horses, the dogs, the sheep — they seem to get along without any extra effort,” he said. “It’s this mechanical stuff I’m not so sure about.”

Three weeks on from his 85th birthday, Peavey’s been in the sheep industry long enough to remember a time before all that.

In the years after the mines went under, and before ski lifts began spinning at Sun Valley, Blaine County belonged to the sheep — and few families around today align as closely with the work as Peavey’s.

A century ago, seven years before John’s grandfather founded the Flat Top Sheep Co., some 2.65 million sheep lived in Idaho, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They outnumbered people six to one. It would take more than 50 years for humans to catch up, 700,000 to 687,000 in the 1970 Census.

These days, just 230,000 sheep graze throughout the state, per government estimates. Local ranchers pin the decline on international competition, rising costs, depredation, government regulation — and, beyond that, a modern society uninterested in the ancient labor.

But holdouts remain — like Peavey’s Flat Top, now managed by his own grandson, the fifth generation to work the land north of Carey, and John Faulkner, of Faulkner Land and Livestock, 86 years old and still following the seasons across the 100 miles between the Snake River Plain and the high alpine ranges of the Sawtooths, as his father did before him.

“A lot changed,” Faulkner said. “Sheep are still the same, though. Four footed. Wooly. And I still like them more than cows.”

“To get into the sheep business,” he added, “you’re either born into it or you’re a damn fool.”

Peavey’s grandfather, John Thomas, came to Gooding from Kansas as a banker in 1909. Thomas, who’d go on to serve two nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. Senate, recognized that sheep ranchers could pay off their loans quicker than cattlemen. So, in 1925, he pieced together a ranch of his own. Thomas’ personal brand, a capital T with a J flipped horizontally for the top bar, still shows up on some of Peavey’s sheep — as well as on the dinner plates at Ketchum’s Pioneer Saloon.

“The guys on the ranch helped raise me,” Peavey said. “Every summer, we’d come back and spend time out here. I learned to love it, the life, and the lifestyle.”

His mother, Mary Elizabeth Thomas Peavey Brooks, managed the ranch from when her father died in 1945 until 1961, when she stepped aside to pursue her own political career, which culminated in eight years heading the U.S. Mint.

But Flat Top was in Brooks’ blood. She never left it, or Idaho, behind.

Some 20 years ago, the Ketchum City Council voted not to repaint a blue-and-white sign that read “Eat More Lamb” on the backside of the old J.P. & J.C. Lane Mercantile building on Main Street, now a restaurant and wine bar. Well, the matriarchs of the sheep families wouldn’t have it. And Brooks, at 92, went to say so, remembers Diane Peavey, John’s wife.

“She told them it was out of the question,” Diane said. Ketchum repainted the sign. “We’re a family drawn from that line, that life,” Diane Peavey said. “We take a lot of pride in it_living it, and defending it.”

On Sept. 1, his 85th birthday, John Peavey put the Flat Top rams out with the ewes — “extensive family planning,” as he called it, the way they’ve done for 93 years.

This time, there were some snags. The Sharp’s Fire, which burned more than 100 square miles east of Bellevue straight through to the Pioneer Mountains this summer, torched all but two of the canyons on the west side of Flat Top’s grazing range.

“It’s an odd year to be in sheep ranching, but that’s the case every year,” Diane Peavey said. “You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, all the time.”

“It’ll come back,” Peavey said. “Fire happens. It’ll start to come back together.”

Until then, thank God for neighbors.

Peavey got a call from John Fell Stevenson once the fire spread east, offering room and board for the sheep on his fields south of Bellevue. Stevenson’s growing season was done, his barley well on its way to becoming Coors. So Peavey, the son of a former head of the U.S. Mint, moved his sheep over the ridgeline to the farm of Stevenson, son of Adlai, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and twice a U.S. presidential candidate.

Peavey’s gray half-ton pickup kicked a fine scrim of dust as its traversed Stevenson’s fallow fields. Hoopes Sheep Shearing, a crew out of Mountain View, Wyoming, waited for him beneath the brows of Timmerman Hill — and so did Flat Top’s 2,800 sheep, each awaiting a haircut. Cliff Hoopes’ crew would shear 700 per day for the next four days, collecting, if the summer graze went well, 10 pounds of wool off each Rambouillet.

As sheep go, they’re big animals. The ewes, smeared gray as storm clouds after months outdoors, weigh around 200 pounds. Add another 100 for the rams, and a set of tapered corkscrew horns, browned to the color of old scrolls. (As is custom, the men stay home on the ranch while the ladies have their hair done.)

Rambouillets are common across the West. Think of them as French cousins to the more famous Spanish merino — noticeably larger and slightly less wooly, but toughened up for the American range.

“They produce fine wool, they’re good mothers and they’re a good, meaty animal — that helps us,” Peavey said. “It’s a great meat — the furthest you can get from factory farming — pigs, chickens, all that. These sheep, they do it the way we did it a long time ago.”

Unlike cattle, his ewes see a pen once a year, for their annual shearing.

That’s Hoopes’ specialty. When he hits the road next January, the Hoopes family will have shorn sheep for 130 years. Peavey’s portable corral, after it finally arrived, was pieced together to form a series of pens and chutes leading to and from a purple-and-green plywood trailer about the size of a semi. Brands covered the trailer’s walls, from each ranch his family business has shorn. The Peaveys’ vertical division sign is on it. So is John Thomas’ original initials.

“These guys fly all over the goddamn world to shear sheep,” Hoopes said. And, faced with a dearth of skilled shearers, he’s flown them in from all over to do it, too. He’s employed Peruvians, Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, Falkland Islanders. He’s started a paid apprenticeship program to bring new blood into the field.

“It’s damn near impossible to find people,” he said. “And, it’s getting harder — way harder. This generation, they’d rather go flip burgers at McDonalds for 15 bucks an hour. What we’re doing is strenuous work.”

Nearby, herders hustled a new batch of animals toward the trailer. A racket rose with the dust, peaking in a Spanish chorus: “Andale, Andale — hup-up-up!” Border collies nipped and tugged fleece through cracks in the fencing. Prodded and pushed, the sheep rose and buckled like whitewater toward the mechanical crackle of clippers.

Then, the first sheep rolled through a gap in the side wall to the 4-by-4-foot workspace at a shearer Dave Brennan’s feet. Brennan pinned it like some meek wrestler fighting above its weight class. Done right, the main fleece comes off like a jacket, like the animal just rolled out of it, 3 inches of crimped, matted fiber. The ewe, deflated in its fresh, bleached undercoat, is then snapped like a football, pushed between Brennan’s legs to a numbered holding pen outside. He threw the fleece down onto a slotted shelf below. Over the generator, the buzz of the shears, the overdriven modern rock radio, he called for another one, and another $2.60 cents in his pocket.

Outside, Hoopes’ wife, Dawna, graded the fleece and stacked it in bins: Long and Short. Length depends on the quality of forage. Sheep have their own hierarchy. Their lambs come first, Peavey said, then their own food and water. If they have energy left over, they’ll grow wool, longer and finer on better feed. Thin, long-staple wool will become top-end clothing — suits and the like. Shorter, coarser fibers may end up a sweater, or a blanket. Hair is different altogether; it’s hollow, and won’t take dye, Dawna Hoopes said. She sets that aside, or throws it away.

From there, the fluffy piles are loaded into a hydraulic press, where they’re mashed and tarped into 450- to 500-pound bales. Then, it’s onto a box truck, and off to market.

Undressed, Peavey’s sheep were ready to go, too. Soon, they’d all be loaded on trucks for winter pastures: half to graze standing alfalfa near Bakersfield, California; half to feed on sage and grouse plant in the BLM land south of Wells, Nevada. There, they’ll have their winter lambs. They’ll start to grow new coats for the next season. And, on April 1, they’ll come back to Idaho, and the Flat Top Ranch, where John Peavey will be waiting.

But for now, he tipped back his gray cowboy hat — or is it white, and coated with the fine dust of the field? He took off his gloves, and set down his crooked wood cane, which he doesn’t need, though sometimes the sheep do. And he looked out on his flock, then the amber hillside beyond it, blown smooth and cool by the northwestern wind.

“I think there’s some intrinsic value in the way we do it,” he said. “There’s something in all of this. Sheep ranching in Blaine County, it’s a wonderful place to do it. We’re trying to survive.”

COLUMBIA, Mo.  — “Do you have any more silly sheep stories?”

Sam Garrett frequently fields the question from her third-graders at Fairview Elementary School.

“I actually make a list of stories and cross them off if I tell them that one so I don’t forget,” Garrett said.

Then there’s Kalabar, a 3-½-year-old Hampshire Suffolk wether who makes a springtime visit each year to Fairview. Kalabar also appears often in lessons about math, English, reading and other aspects of Garrett’s curriculum.

A graduate of Rock Bridge High School and MU, Garrett is in her third year at Fairview. Last spring, she was named elementary educator of the year by the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association.

“Sam always tries to engage (students) using different props or dressing up or looking for different ways to keep them involved,” said Christy Muchow, who also teaches third grade at Fairview. “(She) tries to make learning fun — all the time she’s striving for that.”

The Columbia Missourian reports that at 24, Garrett is still closely connected to many years raising and showing sheep through 4-H Club and the National FFA Organization. She was 8 when she started and 21 when she aged out of competition.

As a teacher, she’s found that the children love hearing about the sheep.

“I know it’s something that interests them because it’s something new to them, and (I) use that to engage them,” Garrett said. “So I try to kinda fuse the different aspects of my life together.”

There’s never been a time when sheep weren’t a part of Garrett’s world.

She still lives with her parents on a 160-acre farm south of Columbia where her mother, Janie Garrett, grew up and raised sheep for show. The farm still breeds 25 to 30 ewes per year and sells lambs to children who want to show at fairs through Garrett Club Lambs.

Sam’s father, Glenn Garrett, does most of the work of feeding and caring for the sheep. On a recent Thursday evening, he sat on the front porch of their house talking about the work ethic and discipline necessary to raise sheep. He said the lessons his son and daughter learned on the farm weren’t so much about sheep but about how to live.

“I’m really not raising sheep,” he said. “I’m raising kids.”

Sam Garrett remembers her brother, Will Garrett, showing two lambs as a 4-H project when she was 4. Four years later, it was her turn.

At MU, Sam Garrett ran for the cross country and track team from 2012 to 2016. She was also still showing sheep and, in 2014, set out to win the Earl Crane Memorial Trophy. It’s the grand champion trophy for sheep-showing at the Boone County Fair and is named for her grandfather, Earl Crane, who was the first to register the Suffolk breed of sheep in Boone County.

“I wrote it on my mirror in my room, and so every time I woke up, I was like, ‘Win the Boone County Fair — that is my goal,'” Garrett recalled.

That summer, she said, she woke up at 5 a.m. to help feed the sheep, ran 8 to 10 miles, then ran again in the evening before working with the sheep a second time. She won the Earl Crane trophy with a sheep named Lord Voldemort, whom she called Voldy.

“It was like the fairytale ending,” Garrett said. She started crying when they announced it, she said.

Last year, she told the story of winning the trophy to her students to kick off a writing unit. She re-enacted the drama at the fair by pretending to be the judge and assigning students the roles of contestants.

At the end, the judge announces the grand champion by shaking the contestant’s hand. Garrett said the entire class waited silently in anticipation then erupted with cheers and applause when she, as the judge, shook the hand of the student pretending to be her.

The point of the lesson on personal narrative: “Writers are storytellers,” Garrett said.

The year after winning the Crane trophy was Garrett’s last eligible year as a sheep shower. She won second place in 2015 with Kalabar, named after the villain in the 1998 movie “Halloweentown.”

Because the sheep are market animals — used primarily for meat rather than wool — the first- and second-place sheep must be sold after the fair. However, the man who bought Kalabar at the fair gave him back to Garrett. It took some doing, but she and her mother persuaded Glenn Garrett to let Kalabar stay on the farm.

Since then, Kalabar has been retired. He’s gained 60 pounds and spends his days in the pasture. He is less pampered now than he was during his peak, but he still allows Garrett to “set up” his back legs and be used as an example of what sheep showing would look like.

Glenn Garrett said one of his daughter’s main arguments for Kalabar was that she “can use him to teach kids stuff.”

She does just that. Although Kalabar only makes one physical appearance in the classroom — at the end of the school year — he’s frequently included in other ways.

Last year, she used him as a main character in a math lesson teaching area and perimeter; she told the students that Kalabar would escape from his pen if they didn’t make him a new one.

On a recent Friday, she taught a reading fluency lesson in which she focused on punctuation and quotation marks. One example: “‘Kalabar, don’t eat the chocolate cupcake!’ yelled Ms. Garrett.”

“I like them a lot,” 8-year-old student Lyla Robb said about Garrett’s sheep stories. “They’re really cute. I like animals.”

Third grade is the first year for Missouri Assessment Program testing, so Garrett makes what she calls a “box of goodies” for the students. One is a slip of paper announcing “a visit from Kalabar.”

“It’s a big deal for those kids,” Glenn Garrett said.

After sprucing up Kalabar, Glenn Garrett brings the sheep to school in a stock trailer, and students come outside to meet them. Kalabar is also a way to teach students more about agriculture, he said.

In addition to sheep, Sam Garrett is known for her whimsical, regular use of costumes. On Fridays, she is the “Fri-yay Fairy” — and that means wearing fairy wings.

“Every Friday she wears blue wings,” said 8-year-old Bebe Lookingbill, who is in Garrett’s class this year. “I think they’re really pretty. . I really like the sparkles on them.”

A couple of Fridays ago, an hour and a half into “Fri-yay,” Garrett welcomed her kids with a gold microphone, sang the class song, “We Are the Future” — complete with dancing, arm waving and jumping — taught a reading fluency class, told a sheep story and held an awards ceremony.

“Today is not just any other day,” Garrett said, pulling up a projector image of a stage with red theater curtains. “It’s the Fluency Oscars!”

Garrett has a closet in her classroom dedicated to costumes, hats and accessories that she wears daily to keep her students engaged.

“Everybody laughs,” Tyler Shults, 8, said about her costumes. “Really funny.”