This next installment of the ‘Thank a Farmer’ Series comes all the way from Indiana. Scott and Wendy Feller of Silver Valley Farm welcomed both me and the Small Humans for a visit early this spring and I’m pleased to be able to share a bit about them here.
Wendy, tell us a little about your farm and family.
We are both Oregon transplants and Wabash College brought us to Indiana in 1998. Scott teaches chemistry at Wabash, an all-male college of 900 students. Wendy has been working part time for a caterer, The Juniper Spoon, since 2009. Silver Valley Farm started in 2001 when we purchased 13 acres with a barn northwest of Crawfordsville, Indiana. We wanted our children to have the experiences of growing up on a farm and learn the responsibilities that come with raising livestock. We started out raising a few sheep, adding some meat and Angora goats and a horse. In Montgomery county, the 4-H program expanded those experiences for our children to showing livestock, learning lifelong skills and making valuable memories. Our son, Jake-the entrepreneur as we like to call him, started the laying hens on pasture, selling their eggs and marketed Jumbo Cornish Cross broilers by word of mouth to save money for college. After our daughter and son completed ten years in 4-H, we had acquired 38 Registered Hampshire and Border Leicester ewes, two flocks of 25 laying hens and a Border Collie . When our son Jake went to college, Wendy took over the care of the hens, began selling yarn from her sheep and increased the marketing of our lamb to the Farmer’s Market in Crawfordsville. In 2012, she added the West Lafayette market on Wednesdays to expand our marketing area.
Your husband, Scott, grew up on a sheep farm in Oregon, right? How has his background affected your farm today?
Scott is a third generation sheep farmer. He grew up in town and spent time on a farm much like the one we own today. Scott grew up participating in 4-H showing sheep and Great Pyrenees dogs. He worked on several farms in his youth learning a variety of skills that would help him run his own farm someday. So when the opportunity arrived, we chose sheep for our children to participate with in 4-H. The demand for selling lamb direct to consumer came later with the growing interest of eating locally grown food.
And you were a cattle girl growing up. What first got you interested in sheep instead?
Wendy, the youngest of five children, grew up on a large farm just outside of Silverton, Oregon. Her family raised Charolais (sp) cattle, grass seed and other small grains in the fertile soils of the Willamette Valley. She grew up working on the farm at a young age and has always had an interest in working with animals and enjoys growing vegetables. My interest in sheep began in 1993, when we attended the Maryland Sheep and Wool festival. I was intrigued with the variety of fiber animals, the beautiful yarns produced with exotic fibers like mohair from Angora goats, rabbits and alpacas. Watching the Border Collies herd sheep into a small 10 x 10 pen was truly fascinating! From that day on, I dreamed about living on a farm with a herd of sheep, learning to spin wool into yarn and having a Border Collie by my side.
Of the three breeds you’re raising right now, do you have a favorite? What pros and cons stand out the most about each of them?
I can only judge the two of the three breeds at this point, the Polypays have only been on the farm since February of this year and they are a bit of an experiment to test out and see how efficient they will be. Lambing will start around April 20th. As for the other two, the Hampshire’s are my husband’s favorite. Scott grew up with this breed of sheep and we started off with a few from his family’s farm in Oregon. They are champions at producing high quality lamb and converting their pasture diet into meat. The drawback is we were breeding for large frame type show lambs and this took away from the efficient, mothering traits that make lambing easier. Some days we spend a lot of extra time checking on ewes with young lambs to make sure they are up and drinking on their own. I’d call it more handholding. The Border Leicester’s are less common breed found her in the U.S. and you won’t find them in many show rings. My brother-in-law suggested a breeder in Oregon with excellent stock so we started with a few bred ewes from him. They are excellent mothers and their lambs grow quickly but the finished lambs are not as large as the Hampshire lambs. These are easier sheep to raise and they take less feed than some of our Hampshire ewes. If all the mothers were like the Border Leicesters and all the lambs were the size of the Hampshire lambs finishing at 5-6 months of age – then we’d be in a perfect world.
In the past you were raising sheep more for shows than for production and now, with your kids being older, you’ve switched gears a bit. As you move more towards production do you find yourself making many changes in your operation?
One thing I’ve learned in farming is that it’s good to be diverse. It’s important that our sheep have two purposes – breeding stock, market lambs and wool. We will always raise registered breeding stock to sell off the farm. As we get away from showing the large type frame sheep, we are aiming for a more productive type of ewe. Earlier, we were always looking at the biggest lambs but now our priorities have shifted to the faster growing, efficient lambs. We look for ewes that produce twins, have excellent mothering skills, produce lambs that are up and drinking on their own and have excellent rate of gain. We used to just lamb once a year, from January to March. Now we’re lambing three seasons a year so we have lamb to sell to our customers year round. This past winter was hard on everyone in the barn to keep warm and raise lambs so we did cull more ewes than we have in past years.
Is there anything in the sheep business you wish you could help consumers better understand?
It is hard for some customers to understand the cost of producing a uniformly high quality product. People tell us regularly that our lamb is the best they have ever had but they don’t always realize that it costs a little more to produce quality.
You’re a regular at the farmer’s markets in your area. What do you like most about attending markets? Anything you could do without?
First of all, I love the market atmosphere. If I wasn’t a vendor then I would be a shopper. I enjoy educating customers about the food we grow. I love hearing the compliments from the returning customers about how delicious the lamb was or what recipes they tried out with our beets! I wasn’t a big vegetable lover but since I have been working for a caterer I have learned how to prepare them and I enjoy sharing these healthy, simple recipes with my customers.
And last but not least, do you have a favorite lamb recipe you’ll share with us?
How about two recipes?
Recipe from Silver Valley Farm
Marinade for Lamb Chops
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 lemon, zested (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1 lemon, juiced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves, or 2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 (4-ounce) lamb loin chops, trimmed of all visible fat
In a small bowl stir together the first 7 ingredients. Put the lamb chops in a sealable plastic bag and pour the marinade over them. Move the chops around in the bag so the marinade coats them well. Marinate for 1 hour.
Grill or broil the chops for 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium rare. Be sure to use a meat thermometer to prevent over cooking.
Silver Valley Grilled Lamb Pizza
One handmade pizza dough, or focaccia bread will do
1 pound of ground lamb, cooked and seasoned with salt and pepper
1 cup of sautéed eggplant with olive oil and za’tar seasoning
½ cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup of feta cheese
½ cup of pickled peppers (see recipe for pickled peppers)
¼ cup of chopped red onion
¼ cup fresh arugula
Sprinkle with Sumac (seasoning)
Start with a layer of mozzarella on pressed pizza dough. Then add lamb, eggplant, red onion, feta, peppers and sprinkle with Sumac. Bake on a pizza stone for about 5 minutes at 400 degrees. Top with arugula and serve.