DRIFTLESS - There is an old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But, what if we worked together as a village to help others realize their dreams as well?
Southwestern Wisconsin Shepherdess Amanda Caldwell was one such individual. Lifted up by the village around her, to realize her farming and homesteading dreams.
Sitting in her living room in rural Hillsboro, the sunlight pours in the large windows of her home, which was once a working dairy barn.
Slowly, Amanda and her husband Ben have been turning their own farmstead into their own little slice of paradise.
The couple along with five sons, own Woollyhorn Farm. Currently focusing on Icelandic Sheep and pastured meat animals with dreams for so much more.
“I was born in Norfolk Virginia and lived on the East Coast all of my young life,” Amanda shared. “I moved to Wisconsin on my 16th birthday.”
Later when she was 19, Amanda was missing her mother who had relocated to the western side of Wisconsin after living in the Racine area. Longing for a sense of home and family, Amanda decided to pack up her things and try life in the Driftless Region.
“I moved into a crappy apartment in Coon Valley to be closer to my mom,” Amanda shared. “Later I was lucky to have moved to a more rural home outside of town. My landlord had beef steers and that was really the first time I had ever been around livestock. I was still a city girl then,” Amanda shared with a laugh. “Around the time I had my first son and I became hyper obsessed with how my family and I were eating. And that really became a segue way into a more conscious lifestyle. I eventually moved to La Crosse, I started working at a natural foods store there and I started realizing I wanted to be more connected to the land and more connected to what we put in our bodies.”
Amanda later switched jobs to working at a more high stress call center. The money was good, but the work was demanding and had begun to wear on her. However, she found solace when visiting her mom’s hobby farm and the idea began to develop that maybe that was something that would be a fit for her as well.
“The job was great in some ways but in others it was very difficult,” Amanda recalled. “My mom purchased a small eight acre hobby farm and that really helped give me the push. She had chickens, ducks, goats, and it was all so nice. I set a goal for myself to one day have something like that too. I started just wanting three acres and some chickens. But then I met my mom’s goats and my dreams grew from there. Until finally, the opportunity came. I quit my job and I moved to rural Soldiers Grove and I decided to give farming a shot.”
As a child, Amanda always sought out animals. So it was no surprise to those who knew her, when she gave her new life her all.
“Growing up I was always outside searching for animals,” Amanda recalled. “I loved to spend time playing in the woods and swamp. I loved Steve Irwin and thought I would become a veterinarian or biologist. I often would bring home snakes and turtles and raise baby birds when they fell from the nest. So when I had the opportunity to rent a little slice of a farmstead I did it with my whole heart. I left my job and was a single mom to my three sons, and next thing I knew I had 40 chickens, 12 turkeys and ended up buying some enormous crossbred fiber sheep from a friend. I ended up having somewhere around 88 different animals, not including meat chickens. I quickly learned how hard farming truly is. My landlord would often check in on my sheep and give me little pointers here and there for them, but I really did learn a lot of things in those early months the hard way. I lost my first sheep when my son gave it a five gallon bucket full of oats and it ended up dying. It was a $500 vet bill to find out there was nothing she could do. It was raining that day and the sheep died of bloat wrapped in a towel, laying in my lap.”
The hardships of farm life didn’t deter Amanda however. She stuck with it and continued doing her research and settled her heart on a future that included Icelandic Sheep.
“They (Icelandic Sheep) are a true triple purpose animal (meat, milk and fiber) but they’re like the cats of the livestock world, you have to put in the work and earn their love and I in turn love that challenge,” Amanda shared.
Icelandic sheep are a breed of Northern European short tail sheep. A mid sized breed, they are very cold-hardy and are commonly used for their meat, wool and even milk. They are traced back to the Norwegian Spelsau sheep that were brought to Iceland a thousand years prior to stock you see today. Through the choice breeding, the animals have adapted to harsh climates and are notably efficient herbivores.
According to the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America website, “Due to their large rumens, and the selective pressures of their history in Iceland, the breed is feed efficient. The animals are cold hardy and have a strong reactive immune system. The sheep have evolved over 1,100 years under difficult farming conditions in Iceland, with a resultant sturdy and efficient constitution. A defining quality of the Icelandic breed is the ability to survive on pasture and browse. Historically, Iceland is not a grain producing country due to the climate and the breed has survived through its thousand year history on pasture and hay.”
Icelandic sheep tend to spread out and make good use of pastures. It is noted that they are “good browsers and seem to enjoy eating brush and wild grasses.”
According to Oaklahoma State University “The breed is famous for its wool around world, but in Iceland it is bred almost exclusively for meat. Lambs grow fairly fast on good pasture and should reach 80-10 pounds in four to five months. In Iceland, they are not fed any extra grain and are slaughtered straight off mountain pastures.”
In addition to their fast growth rate and beloved fleece, Icelandic sheep are also very prolific in their fertility. Twin lambs are considered the norm with this breed with triplets and quads not unusual. To top it off, they are also known to be fantastic mothers with a shorter gestation than some.
“I sought out these sheep after doing a lot of research and drove to Lodi to get my first four,” Amanda recalled. “But right away I found myself struggling with them realizing when I got home that they were all very sick.” The sheep, Amanda later discovered after two had died, were loaded with liver flukes and coccidia, fatal parasites.
“They had a low chance of survival, but they made it. I had a short time to learn a lot about veterinary care for my sheep.”
Around the time that her first Icelandic Sheep came into her life, so did her now husband Ben.
Although the pair had known each other for many years previous, sharing a common goal of raising their children on a farm brought them closer than ever before.
Soon, Ben too left the city life in Manhattan and got back to his roots in the Driftless. Growing up on a farm in Sacramento and later in rural Liberty Pole, coming back to Soldiers Grove and joining Amanda felt like home.
“I would call him when he still lived in New York to vent about my farm struggles because I knew he’d understand,” Amanda recalled with a smile. “Ben had come home to visit his dad and we were able to be together in person. It wasn’t long after that he moved back for good. He made it clear that we had the same goals. He moved back and helped me in so many ways.”
Although the pair shared the dream of homesteading and farming, renting wasn’t for them.
“We decided to move into town into a home Ben owned so we would be able to focus on finding a property to buy,” Amanda explained. “It was a really hard decision for me to part with my sheep and other animals, but my friend John Cruz stepped up and he took all of my animals for me and wouldn’t accept a dime for their care for the 18 months he had them. I was able to take a few chickens to live in town with us but John stepping in really allowed me to bookmark my dream and come back to it when we found the right home for them.”
Amanda shared that during this time John also taught her hands on butchering skills she would continue to use this day.
Around this time, Amanda also met her mentor, Bonnie Wideman.
“Bonnie is really important to me,” Amanda said, as she gestured to a photo of her hanging on her wall. “But you wouldn’t know it if you saw our first meeting,” she continued with a hardy laugh. “I was really getting into raising sheep and a lot of people were telling me ‘You should talk to Bonnie’ when it came to sheep. I was introduced to her at a party and told her I was pursuing Icelandic Sheep and she said to me “why would you want Icelandic Sheep?” and turned to talk to someone else. But later, she responded to a post I had made on Facebook about needing help my sheep. She came out to John’s house where my sheep were staying while we were in the process of finding our new farm, and taught me how to shear them in a milking parlor. We kept in touch, and shortly after Ben and I were married and my son Forest was born, she invited me out to do some work on sheep skins. It retrospect it felt like it was a test, to see if I was really on board with the full life of raising sheep. But it became more than that. I shared my whole life story, some of the deepest secrets I never told anyone. We truly bonded and she became like my sheep fairy godmother.”
After their bonding experience, Bonnie asked Amanda to bring her animals to her home, where she would be able to be with them a little more often in more of an apprenticeship style role under the seasoned shepherdess.
“It was like a traveling circus of my animals bringing them from my friend John’s house to Bonnie’s farm,” Amanda recalled. “But having them there, she was able to teach me all about raising my animals organically like I had always wanted to. She taught me everything and really inspired me and helped me to feel empowered. Having the farming, homesteading and Icelandic Sheep community around me, to influence me and embrace me really helped set the tone for where I’m at today. A lot of people have been really patient with me dealing with questions about my animals, and I am so thankful for everyone who brought me up to speed on this life. There are still so many people, especially in the sheep world who are my friends and mentors, who never hesitate to answer my questions day or night when I am struggling.”
Although Amanda will readily admit her husband doesn’t share her love for Icelandic sheep, his love for his wife, strong desire to rear children in a farm centered life, and value in high quality animal husbandry helped her bring her biggest dream to a reality.
“Ben deserves a lot of credit,” Amanda explained. “He made it a mission to make my sheep dreams possible. He worked to seek out the best property we could afford and make sure I, our kids, and my animals could all have the life they deserve. Three days after we moved in I brought my 13 sheep, I bought a heifer, two pigs, a ton of chickens, and I went directly to Tractor Supply and bought a bunch of ducks and more chickens and he just sighed and said ‘Okay’ and went with it.”
After bringing home their menagerie and with a little more experience under her belt, the family and animals began to tackle the neglected property.
“We first went to check out the home in May but didn’t move into it until July,” Amanda shared. “We didn’t get a chance to really explore the terrain initially so when we moved in the grass was six feet tall and we didn’t even know we had a whole wetland and creek running through it. We used an electric net fence and had to walk through and stomp down the grass to put in the fence. I did a lot of crying and falling in the creek that summer. I felt like we had bought the wrong property after realizing it was completely fallow for 20 years and there was garbage everywhere. But we stuck to it. We were a funny bunch out there rotating the grazing animals every single day, still crying every day, but eventually laughing and smiling too. We kept with it and everything started to change for the better.”
After all of her years struggling and working hard to get by, Amanda received one of the greatest delights a farmer can experience.
“We had a first live lamb born on our farm early last spring,” Amanda recalled. “It was a huge confidence boost. My ewe was struggling to get the lamb out so I had to assist her. It ended up being a huge ram lamb with gigantic horn buds, that we named Fezzik. It was such a huge reward. “
As the spring turned into summer, Amanda and her family worked together with their knowledge gained during her whirlwind few years and trials by fire in farming life to help rehab her property further.
“Our second year here with rotating the sheep was amazing, and I started to realize that It’s not all full of struggle. I watched our pastures transform and develop a lot of biodiversity from rotational grazing. I saw so many new beneficial plants growing. It became such a delight to walk out there in the summer and find new and exciting growth. It continues to be really satisfying and makes me so excited for all of our years to come. I am looking forward to things becoming a place where we can all be together more and I can continue to learn from other farmers about different ways to continue to be a good steward to our land and animals. I am really proud of how far I’ve come through. We don’t buy any meat from the store,” Amanda explained. “We have been able to raise or barter for much of what we eat, and have cut our grocery bill by 75 percent. I hope to be able to make the transition more from only feeding our family to also making a profit and providing high quality pastured meat to others.”
Currently, Amanda and her husband are able to raise hundreds of pastured meat chickens for sale directly from their farm as Wisconsin law allows less than 1000 birds to be raised and processed on a farmer’s own home for sale.
In the future, Amanda hopes to also expand on her pastured pork operation offering rare breed Kune Kune pork raised on pasture for sale to others.
However, due to some legality hurdles with processing, she does not plan to offer her lambs and ewes for sale as a finished meat product at this time.
Wisconsin law requires livestock like lambs and other large livestock be inspected in a facility if for sale, but many farmers like Amanda stick to home processing for their own family due to the connection they have with their animals.
“I’m very particular about how my sheep die,” Amanda explained. “I do all of the dispatching of them myself. It’s almost like a ritual. When I dispatch them I hold them and I pet them and I make sure they’re calm and relaxed. I don’t dispatch them until it seems like they are ready, and then I thank them for their sacrifice for our family and complete the job. I save every pelt, and skull and make sure nothing goes to waste, I have a deep love for these animals and I want to make sure they are respected. I’ve had a really hard time letting go of these parts of my sheep but I’m starting to sell more pelts and skulls and working towards my dreams of making a profit for my family.”
As the day wore on, Amanda took time to step out into the sunny afternoon and visit her flock.
As a cool March breeze blew, several round bellied sheep with a look of suspicion in their eyes milled around their dry winter paddock as she gently called to them.
Cautiously, the pregnant ewes slowly approached their shepherdess, with one allowing her to gently offer her affection.
“Do you see that one!” Amanda said softly, but full of excitement, “She’s going to lamb any day now! This is why It takes me so long to do chores. I come out here just to feed them and end up staring at them for an hour, hoping they’ll start to lamb. But once it happens, they will all start to come fast, and I’m really looking forward to the new life on the farm.”
In addition to greeting the new lambs on the farm, as time goes on the Caldwells are looking forward to developing their gardens and cultivating their food forest with help from Ben’s dad Robert who is staying with them for the summer to continue to help achieve their goals of being conscious stewards of their land.
The family welcomed their fifth son in January. However, having many little hands and feet on the farm to take care of in addition to the livestock has not slowed the dreams of Amanda and Ben. Rather, it seems to have enhanced their goals of creating a better landscape for their children to experience as they grow as well as sharing what they’ve learned with others.“Our long term goals are to have a very diversified permaculture farm that offers seasonal speciality fruits, herbs and other produce in addition to Icelandic breeding stock, sheepskin rugs, hide tanning classes, pastured pork for sale as well as focusing more on breeding pilgrim geese, another love of mine. And of course surviving season three on this land of a family of seven now.”