By Caroline Owens
What do you get when you combine summer, kids, and Coopworth sheep? Sheep Camp!
The 1st of February is a critically important day for Owens Farm in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. That’s when Sheep Camp registration opens up for the general public, previous campers having had an Earlybird Registration in late January. All available spots will be snapped up before lunch, and another season of Sheep Camp will be underway. In fact, my husband David and I have been offering this program since 2004, and every week has been full with a waiting list.
Sheep Camp is a week-long day camp for children ages seven to 12, held on a working Katahdin and Coopworth sheep farm. Each camper has his or her own lamb for the week with which to learn about animal science, fiber arts, and sustainable farming. Sessions run Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during selected weeks in June and July. The number of campers is limited to 15 to assure a high level of personal attention.
Program & Activities
The curriculum balances hands-on lessons and games with lecture and demonstration. Fundamental concepts and favorite activities form the backbone of the program, with new topics rotated through to keep things fresh for returning campers.
The first and most important day is when the kids meet each other and their lambs. The lambs are freshly weaned and must be taught to lead. Many of the campers have never touched a sheep before, let alone had to train it. This simple skill encompasses many others, from approaching and restraining the lamb to putting on the halter correctly.
The lambs are three to four-month-old Coopworth sheep: Big enough to work with, but small enough for a child to handle.
With patient coaching and enough experienced help, it all works out. By Wednesday, the kids will be taking their lambs around the Obstacle Course. The shy ones will have overcome their fear and bonded with their lamb. The assertive kids will have learned the value of a gentle touch and calm attitude. The daydreamer will be listening more carefully after being warned, “Don’t lean over your lamb: It might jump up and hit your chin.”
The basics are taught in a logical progression throughout the week. The second day focuses on ruminant digestion, feeds and nutrition, and managed grazing of Coopworth sheep. At first blush, this may seem boring or too advanced for middle school kids. Not so! The subject comes to life as the kids handle scale models and visual aids, watch actual rumen bacteria dancing under a microscope, and quietly observe their lambs making forage selections.
Keeping Coopworth sheep healthy occupies an entire morning. The campers learn that a shepherd must handle most of his own routine veterinary tasks. Key topics such as parasite control, common ailments, hoof care and first aid are covered. The kids give shots to oranges, install ear tags on simulated ears, stomach-tube a stuffed animal, and splint a sheep’s leg for an imaginary broken bone. They check their lambs for vital signs and learn to set them on their rump. Manure, blood, maggots, and other “yucky topics” are discussed with complete ease.
Wool and fiber arts are included in each day’s activities. On Monday, the kids are introduced to wool and its special properties. A sheep is sheared, and the fleece carefully washed. As the week progresses, the campers try their hand at dyeing, weaving, felting, and spinning. Local spinners, 4-H clubs and fiber artists participate as guest speakers.
Summer is a time for fun. And games are a part of Sheep Camp. But that doesn’t mean the learning stops: A rousing round of Hide-n-Go Sheep brings home the point of how flock animals think. Nothing will give away your hiding place like a solo sheep baaing for its buddies. After participating in the Lamb Races, a child knows exactly how to train a sheep to come running to a bucket of grain.
Even though it is an educational experience, Sheep Camp does not look like a conventional school setting. The main meeting space is the 19th Century Pennsylvania bank barn, where diagrams and easels are hung from hay bales and hand-hewn beams. The lambs live in the barn next door, with space for impromptu seating and discussion. Hay bales become seats, pastures turn into living labs, and the Coopworth sheep serve as teachers. Animal Science concepts are the launch pad for myriad related topics. Strands of history, math, anthropology, biology, psychology, economics and other subjects weave seamlessly through the week’s program and discussions.
Even the social dynamics are not the same as school. The kids come from different towns, states, sometimes different countries! They range from 2nd to 7th grade. Some are experienced returning campers; others, brand new to the scene. Sheep Camp is a welcoming and safe place for all. Social cliques from school become irrelevant. The kids come together with a shared love of animals and a keen sense of adventure. Boys learn to knit; girls learn to wrestle an animal that matches their weight. No question is considered stupid. Teamwork doesn’t mean kicking a soccer ball: It means one kid catches the loose Coopworth sheep while the other runs to close the gate.
Just as in farming, one topic leads smoothly into another. The discussion of grazing behavior morphs into a pasture walk, shovel in hand, to learn about pasture biology, how the electric fence works and the indispensable role of the border collie. Weighing the lambs inevitably leads to the kids going through the handling system for a sheep’s-eye view. If camp coincides with haymaking, the kids follow every step in the process—including wishing away thunderstorms. Our family also raises pastured pigs, chickens, horses, bees, fruits, and vegetables. Diversity and sustainable farming methods become a natural part of the conversation.
Evolution Of Sheep Camp
The concept for Sheep Camp arose from our homeschooling days with our three children. Being the only sheep farm in town, we found ourselves hosting farm tours and co-op activities centered on Coopworth sheep and wool for our fellow homeschoolers. The days were always too short, the list of meaningful topics too long. “There’s enough we could teach about sheep to fill an entire week,” I had observed to my husband after one such field trip. In the blink of an eye, a plan was hatched. My first career had been teaching Vocational Agriculture, so writing lesson plans and organizing a program was familiar territory. Sheep Camp, originally advertised to local homeschool and church families, was an instant hit and became the farm’s signature program.
Pros And Cons
As with any of our farm enterprises, David and I recognize that there are both positives and negatives to Sheep Camp. At $275 per camper, the program is an important contributor to farm income. However, the gross profit is offset by direct costs and a significant time commitment.
There are only two months of the year when I’m not actually working on or thinking about Sheep Camp in some capacity.
Earlybird Registration opens in January. That means the dates and agenda need to be nailed down and posted on the farm website by late fall.
January and February bring the rush of deposits, registrations, health forms, and customer communications.
Lambing takes over the month of March—and those are the Coopworth sheep lambs to be used in camp.
Just as David and I are “coming up for air” after lambing, April and May must be dedicated to camp preparations—on top of the normal spring workload. It can be a bit overwhelming.
Each single week of camp actually dominates three calendar weeks: Preparation the week before, the actual week of camp, and catching up on things the following week. There is a brief respite in late summer and early fall after the last camp ends, then the cycle begins again.
For David and I, the pros far outweigh the cons. We do find it highly satisfying to work with young people and their families. There’s also a great deal of synergy between Sheep Camp and the farm business as a whole: Owens Farm markets lamb, pork, and chicken directly to consumers, a model referred to as “relationship marketing.” Families who come to know and trust the farm through Sheep Camp become enthusiastic customers for other products and programs.
For many years, I always gave the kids a simple survey at the end of camp. When they came to the question, “What was your favorite part of sheep camp?” the answers were surprisingly similar. “Hanging out with my sheep,” the kids said, “Playing with my sheep.” For me as shepherdess and manager, feedback like that crystallizes the real reason Sheep Camp is so rewarding. David and I have the opportunity to offer children a unique experience increasingly hard to find in today’s fast-paced, highly-connected world. That brings us a deep sense of purpose, which is well worth the effort.
Have you experienced the joys of teaching kids about Coopworth sheep? Have you tried Sheep Camp? Tell us about it!
Caroline and David Owens raise Katahdin and Coopworth sheep in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Their sheep support the farm through traditional means such as freezer lambs, breeding stock and fleeces, but also through educational programs like Sheep Camp, Adopt-A-Sheep, and Lambing-Time Slumber Parties. For more information about Owens Farm, visit www.owensfarm.com.
Originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of sheep!.