When Bell County, Ky., FFA member Ashley Jones leased a sheep from her neighbor for a 4-H project when she was 8, she had no idea it would turn into a business opportunity that would follow her into her college years. Now 20 and a sophomore at Walters State Community College in Morristown, Tenn., Ashley is the shepherd of a flock of more than 50 purebred Border Leicester sheep on her family’s 20-acre farm in Claiborne County, Tenn.
Through her business, Blackberry Farm, Ashley raises and sells Border Leicester sheep, which are prized for their flavorful meat and long, lustrous wool. Her parents, Richard and Rosemary Jones, have helped her grow her flock and market the lamb and wool products.
“I started raising Border Leicester sheep because my neighbor owned some and wanted someone to show them. I agreed to take care of them, and I showed four sheep in 4-H my first year,” Ashley says. “I’ve always liked animals, and I fell in love with this breed because I’m petite, and they are medium-sized with a calm disposition. They’re very eye-catching because of their curly wool that has a lot of sheen to it. They are like the sheep featured in the movie Babe. ”
Ashley began her own flock by purchasing two sheep from a breeder, which grew into 90 but has been reduced to a more manageable flock of 50. The family sells lamb meat in the fall after show season and sells wool year-round.
“My mom helps with the lambing and gives all the shots to the lambs because I don’t like needles, and my dad helps me sell the wool on eBay now that I am in college,” Ashley says. “If I have an early morning class, my dad will feed the sheep for me, and I’ll take care of them at night. I’ve had to learn time management and prioritizing skills. It’s a lot of work on the weekends with shearing and deworming.”
“I’ve had to learn time management and prioritizing skills. It’s a lot of work on the weekends with shearing and deworming.”
Marketing Lamb and Wool
Word of mouth has been Ashley’s primary advertising tool for her lamb meat, and the Internet has helped her market the wool.
“The meat business came on its own because a lot of people like lamb. So when they found out I raise sheep, they asked for it,” she says. “We started selling the wool at craft fairs and fiber festivals, but we found we could make more of a profit – about $12 a pound – by selling it on eBay. People buy it for everything from needle felting and hand spinning to making Santa beards.”
Ashley taught herself the art of needle felting and teaches needle-felting classes at women’s meetings, 4-H camps, sheep shows and the like. She sells needle-felting kits to people attending her classes.
“People really have fun with it – it’s like Play-Doh with wool. You can make anything from hats and ornaments to figurines,” Ashley says. “One lady I know needle-felts nativity scenes and sells them.”
In addition to her sheep, Ashley cares for three Great Pyrenees dogs and three horses. The dogs are excellent guardians for the sheep, protecting them from other dogs and predators.
“We used to breed the dogs, and we have sold two litters of puppies to other sheep owners and people who love the Great Pyrenees breed,” Ashley says. “But we no longer breed the dogs because it got to be too much of a handful during lambing seasons.”
National FFA Honors
In October 2011 at the 84th Annual National FFA Convention, Ashley was named as the National Proficiency Winner in Diversified Livestock Production. In addition to prize money, she won a trip to Costa Rica (slated for June 2012) where she will work with the local agriculture community and do lots of sightseeing.
Ashley says she would like to continue raising sheep after college, but she plans to transfer to Eastern Kentucky University in the fall of 2012 and study occupational therapy. Her parents have agreed to take care of her best breeding sheep in her absence if she sells down her flock to about 10 sheep.
“I chose to study occupational therapy because I have diabetes, and I would like to help kids who also struggle with it,” she says.
Ashley’s advice to young FFA members is to embrace every opportunity.
“Raising sheep turned out to be a great thing for me,” she says. “If you see an opportunity you might like, go for it and see where it takes you.”
– Jessica Mozo