By Caroline Owens
For a yearly fee, sheep adopters support animal maintenance and enjoy visits, updates, and woolly rewards.
Small sheep operations worldwide are finding “adoption” programs a viable way to attract clients and earn top returns for top products. Getting non-farming patrons to adopt a sheep (sponsor its upkeep financially for a year) builds patron loyalty and stabilizes flock expenditures. Farms define “adopt” in various ways. Some plans are vague and impersonal (multiple sponsors to a sheep) and ask $15 to $50 a year per sheep. They offer a quarterly newsletter and one group event on the farm. Others offer urban and suburban clients hands-on experiences with rural life all year long, at a cost of $120 to $240 per sheep adoption. One of the very best sheep adoption operations we found is Owens Farm, whose plan is fully described as follows.
Our Coopworth ewes at Owens Farm in Sunbury, Pennsylvania earn their keep a little differently than most sheep. They do raise lambs for meat and purebred stock. They do shear six to eight pounds of high-quality fleece. But in addition, these ewes also play a starring role in our Adopt-A-Sheep program.
There are currently more than 40 sheep on adoption, from 16 different states. We have been offering sheep adoptions since 1994, way before the internet simplified the process of niche marketing.
Sheep Adoption Details
Each adoption lasts 12 months, starting when the adoptive family registers and pays for the program. The fee is $150, and the sheep stays here on the farm.
The first step is for me to choose the right sheep. This is based on several criteria including the sheep adopters’ plans for the wool, their reasons for joining the program, who is involved in the adoption, and where they live.
For a family with young children and no interest in fiber, for example, I might assign them a ewe lamb so they could watch her grow. A knitting club in California might get that ewe with awesome fleece, but an aloof disposition. A local Girl Scout troop would be a good candidate for that friendly ewe I can count on to bear twins, shear a nice fleece, and stand for endless photo sessions.
Based on this choice, I create a Welcome Kit and send it to the adoptive family. This hefty package contains their sheep’s life story and pedigree, photos, information about the breed—and our farm in particular—and a book about sheep. My current favorite is Storey’s Barn Guide to Sheep. This full-color spiral bound book is graphically interesting enough to appeal to children, but packed with enough hard information to satisfy adults. If the families live nearby, we arrange a visit for sheep adopters to meet their sheep.
From that point on, we communicate periodically in different ways.
Updating Sheep Adopters
Several times a year, a letter goes out summarizing what’s going on at the farm. The subject matter is not limited to sheep. (Our sheep share the farm with Tamworth pigs, pastured chickens, honeybees, and horses.) All our products are direct-marketed to the public. We also make our own hay, offer overnight farm stays, and grow fruits and vegetables. Our letters provide an inside view of life on a sustainable, diversified farm.
We always tuck educational material in with the letters to broaden the sheep adopter’s knowledge of sheep. The letter discussing spring deworming for example also contains an article on parasitology. The letter on breeding season includes advice on ram and ewe preparation. With the letter about lambing season comes a sheep supply catalog showcasing the wide array of products supporting the industry. A couple of times a year, I give them a copy of sheep! magazine for a special touch. And yes, sometimes we throw in something just for fun. When I first learned about SheepPoo Air Fresheners (sheep dung recycled into paper and infused with the fragrance of fresh grass) my first thought was, “I’ve got to get these for my adopt-a-sheep families!”
Workaday Farm Labors As Alluring Country Events
Our sheep adopters are invited to stop by during sheep work days. An e-mail goes out when we plan to bring the flock into the handling system for management tasks such as foot trimming, deworming, weighing, and sorting. For local families, this is a great opportunity to say hi, see their sheep, snap a photo, and help out.
Everyone gets the email, even people in other states. That way they get a real feel for the tasks involved with owning sheep, even if they cannot physically attend.
Shearing Day is a highlight of the adoption year for those whose main interest is fiber. This is an amazing effort, with lots of folks on deck to help out and learn how to shear a sheep. Each sheep is caught, her blanket removed and a “before” photo snapped just before the sheep is handed over to our patient and energetic shearer Kristin Ross. An “after” photo completes the process. That way, the folks who can’t be there get to see the results.
Lambing time is another much anticipated season for the adoptive families. Through our letters, they learn how critical this month is to our operation. From the breeding process to gathering supplies and to setting up lambing pens, they share in our anticipation.
When an adopted sheep gives birth, I email her family a photo. Local sheep adopters leap into their cars to come see the newborns. Remote families are thrilled to see the “baby pics.”
Many of the adoptive families also participate in our Lambing Time Slumber Parties.
About adoption renewals: When their 12-month adoption period had elapsed, we let the adoptive families know and ask about their future plans. The majority of families decide to re-adopt their sheep or her offspring for another year. This came as a surprise when we first began the program.
Wool: Adoption’s Crowd-Puller
Access to fiber processing is one of the key benefits to the program. Most of the adoptive families want their wool processed into roving, yarn, felt, or blankets. What we need for this is something not every mill is willing or able to do. We need each fleece kept separate and correctly identified by sheep and adoptive family and processed in a timely manner. In an industry where minimum fiber runs are often in the double digits and processing times can exceed a year, this is a tall order. Fortunately, we have a great local mill that works with us to make it happen.
Mike and Elizabeth Longstreth at Lazy Meadows Alpacas & Fiber Mill in Hughesville, Pennsylvania reserve the month of February for our fleeces. By late spring, the yarn, roving and felt is ready. Local families then pick it up at our farm and visit their sheep. (For out-of-state sheep adopters, I mail it.)
The hand-woven blankets are finished by fall. These are a special treasure. Not only is the blanket made exclusively from the adopted sheep’s fleece, but the families also get to choose the hand-dyed colors.
Our adopt-a-sheep families absolutely love knowing that their fiber products came from their actual sheep!
Wool processing isn’t included in the adoption fee, because of the variety of options, each having its own unique cost. Processing and shipping costs are paid for separately as well.
So Who Adopts A Sheep?
The people who seek this unique experience are creative and adventurous:
• Families—our sheep have been adopted by dozens of them. Many of them are homeschoolers looking for the ultimate unit study.
• Grandparents have adopted for their grandchildren, ensuring a year of shared activities.
• Knitting clubs have adopted either for a single member or as a group project.
• Birthdays, engagements, and anniversaries have been celebrated with a sheep adoption.
• Wool is a traditional gift for the seventh year of marriage.
• Girl Scouts have adopted sheep as a troop project with badge benefits.
• Young couples who plan to own sheep have adopted, as well as older folks looking ahead to a retirement flock.
• City dwelling fiber artists have adopted to enjoy a personal connection with their fiber source.
Our sheep have even become part of family dynasties. Coopworth ewe 238 for example, has been adopted so far by three generations of the same family—and her lamb got in on the act last year!
Because an adoption lasts a full year, I need to be extra proactive in my culling decisions. If I anticipate a ewe’s removal from the flock, I take her out of the adoption program when she comes up for renewal. This is easy for a predictable characteristic like old age. It can be a little tricky for unexpected failures like maternal performance, foot health, or parasite resilience.
Although I do enjoy the process, there is no doubt that composing and mailing the Welcome Kits and letters is time-consuming. The same is true of the photos and “birth announcements” during lambing.
Benefits: Commercial & Personal
There are many reasons we have continued this program for so many years.
The adoption fees do contribute to a money-making agriculture business.
All of our products are direct-marketed to the public, so the more people we have coming to the farm for various reasons the better.
The adopt-a-sheep families are a very interested and involved group, who not only buy our meats but also send their kids to Sheep Camp, Lambing Time Slumber Parties, and other events.
We have met fascinating people and formed long-lasting friendships through the adoption program. Above all, we find deep satisfaction in sharing a taste of the farming life with others.
I personally know how transformative such an opportunity can be. My own interest in sheep dates back to childhood, and a generous Suffolk producer who hosted our little 4-H club. The sights, sounds and fragrances of the lambing barn made an indelible impression on me, as did the sense of accomplishment from learning how to shear. I held those sensations in my memory bank for years, until I was a newlywed. As my husband and I listed the elements we wanted in our first house, “land for sheep” topped my list.
Have you ever been a sheep adopter? Tell us your experiences.
Caroline and David Owens raise Coopworth and Katahdin 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 September/October 2016 issue of sheep!.