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“The primary purpose of many small farms is to provide an opportunity for open spaces, fresh air, scenic landscape, privacy, peacefulness, or other unique qualities of rural life. Others are looking for a good place to raise a family … Others farm because they want to live close to nature; many are stewards of the land by choice, because stewardship gives purpose and meaning to their lives. For them, farming is an expression of spirituality.”
– John Ikerd

I wanted to read a memoir about women farming, as I often feel intimidated about participating in male-dominated farming in Australia. But in many ways it’s probably just the usual intimidation felt by city-dwellers feeling our way in completely new territory – it has certainly improved over time as we’ve made connections with local contractors, neighbours, shopkeepers and felt more part of the local community.

I came across this light memoir by Catherine Friend, about a female couple who run a 50 acre farm in Minnesota, USA (same size as ours!). They run about 50 sheep, as well as a menagerie of other animals, and sell their meat and wool commercially. Lambing season for them involves about 100 little white bundles sproinging around the place, which is my idea of heaven, including many bottle-fed lambs from ewes dropping twins, triplets, and quadruplets.With Bill Bryson-esque humour, Catherine is searching for reasons to keep farming after tiring of the highs and lows, the challenges and the mess, as she enters middle-age. She takes a good hard look at sheep and all the joys and frustrations of their breed. She delves into the 10,000 year history of shepherding, some of the linguistic heritage shepherding has given us, the environmental benefits of raising pastured meat and fibre (even though we are often told otherwise), mentions some of the stupid farming mistakes she has made (making me feel better and highlighting some of the many challenges facing new farmers), as her farm ebbs and flows over the course of a few years.

She is initially bemused by the world of ‘fibre freaks’, but through the course of the book becomes more and more enamoured with all things wool and starts to move a predominantly meat-raising operation to a focus on high quality wool, something that I often dream of doing. This quote was an interesting one to think about:  “Without spinning, there is no civilization, no technology, no history, no agriculture, no animal husbandry, no permanent settlements, and the whole of human history just did not happen. Without what I’m doing now, making yarn, there is no life as we know it. Cultures lacking in textile production capability don’t generally advance beyond hunting and gathering” (Abby Franquemont). Like much of the book it’s fairly shallow, and ignores the huge breadth of human history that does involve hunting and gathering, as well as assuming that moving from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies was a good thing, but I like the importance it gives spinning nevertheless.

I just love the fact that given how far we have come technologically-speaking, there is no better fibre for warmth, breathability, insulation, water-repulsion, mould and mildew-repulsion, body odour-repulsion, durability, wrinkle-resistance, fire retardance, minimal environmental impact, and beauty, than a product that comes straight off a sheep’s back. In fact, the only downside I can see with wool is that it’s so natural and delicious that bugs like to eat it in my wardrobe! (oh, and that historic large-scale sheep grazing has destroyed many of Australia’s most delicate ecosystems).

This book starts out in a more critical mood, but ends up an excited ode to sheep, farms, wool, knitting, lambs, all other farm animals, the farming lifestyle, and rural living itself. If you like any of these things and want to feel affirmed or sometimes wonder why you’re farming in the first place, you’ll enjoy this book!

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Meanwhile, back on the farm we’ve had a bumper crop of lambs, more than doubling our flock in two weeks!

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