John Kirkwood retired from a career toiling 40-hour weeks as a purchasing manager to end up working 80 hours a week as an Ohio sheep farmer.
His wife Kathy has a full-time job at the Stark County Health Department and then goes home to another full-time job with the sheep.
In the farm’s Wool and More retail outlet, Kathy Kirkwood stands amid a wealth of in-demand merchandise grown on their own farm.
Neither would have it any other way.
But the route the Kirkwoods took to full time sheep and wool producers at their 5.5-acre Kirkwood Farm outside Mt. Eaton, 65 miles south of Cleveland, was a circuitous one.
They were looking for an activity they could enjoy together on weekends and during retirement.
They went from spending 30 years as recreational gardeners to market gardeners, growing 1,000 red raspberry plants along with 250 strawberry plants, pumpkins, corn, green and wax beans, 6,000 onion plants and producing about 800 pounds of garlic annually.
But then John was diagnosed with skin cancer on his face. Two hours of surgery removed the cancer and two hours of plastic surgery followed, but with doctor’s orders to stay out of the sun as much as possible, wear a hat, and use sun screen, the gardening gave way to the sheep and wool business.
“Finding” The Sheep Biz
We just eliminated the garden,” he says. “As we eliminated the garden, we increased the sheep.”
The couple had owned several breeds of horses that they drove in different types of horse-drawn vehicles until they were almost killed driving a horse on the road in front of their home.
“Living in Ohio Amish Country, you would expect people to be looking out for horse drawn vehicles on the road,” John says. “Until you actually drive a horse on the road you can’t realize how many crazy drivers there are.”
The brush with danger fresh on their minds, they discussed what other type of farm animal they would like to have.
“We decided on sheep for a number of reasons,” explains John.
“We did have Angora goats. Keeping the goats and sheep together was somewhat of a challenge. Goats eat much slower than sheep. If you feed sheep and goats together the sheep will eat most of the feed unless goats use their horns and knock the sheep out of the way. Goats using their horns is another problem.”
The Kirkwoods also had difficulty selling the mohair as roving.
“We decided to expand our sheep flock and eliminate the Angora flock,” John says.
“We like sheep for their wool because we can do so much with it. We also like them for the many different colors of wool they have. They are not destructive to anything. Since we have had sheep they haven’t broken or destroyed anything.”
And while the sheep are intended to provide the couple with a living there is another asset that doesn’t appear on the bottom line.
“We enjoy watching the lambs jumping and playing in the pasture,” Kathy says. “We like them because they make an excellent pet. Several of our sheep come up to us and want to be petted like a dog.”
The Kirkwoods renovated their horse stable, turning it into a well-kept sheep barn.
Then they bought 12 Cheviot ewes that had been put under a ram and the following spring their inaugural flock produced six lambs.
“It’s something we can both have and do together,” says Kathy, who already knew how to crochet and do other crafts and quickly became adept at spinning wool and knitting.
John Kirkwood says as they became more interested in what could be done with wool, they looked for a fine-wool type sheep.
“Due to size, the fine quality of wool, and the different colors of wool, we purchased Shetland ewes,” he says. “The second year we had them, we had 26 lambs.”
But the Kirkwoods found people have local markets for different types of wool and the market in their area was not Shetland. They again investigated other breeds of sheep and opted for Romneys.
They bought an initial five Romney ewe lambs and then additional ewes.
“We also added Border Leicester, Leicester Longwool, Merino, and Corriedale, (white and natural colored),” John recounts.
They had nine of the estimated 900 Leicester Longwools in the U.S. at one stage. The breed, listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as critically endangered after it almost disappeared from North America by the 1930s, was favored by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
It produces beautifully soft wool, but is not widely accepted by spinners and knitters. With their small flock, the Kirkwoods had to replace the rare sheep with a more practical line.
As 2012 began, they had 14 Romney, four Corriedale, and a Border Leicester sheep and were hoping most of the ewes would give birth in the spring.
The Kirkwoods hire specialists for some of the more exacting farm jobs, like Bill Herman, who cleanly shears the flock.
“We would like to have a total of about 28 to 30 sheep,” Kirkwood says.
“We chose Romney and Corriedale because we like their appearance, their great disposition and the quality of wool.”
The first time shearing the Romney sheep they sold the raw wool on eBay.
“We sold out of wool the next two times we sheared the sheep. We added more sheep and had some processed into roving,” Kirkwood says.
Building A Product Line
The Kirkwoods’ flock produces about 200 pounds of raw wool a year and they are aiming to increase this to 300 pounds a year.
“We wash wool locks by hand for other crafters and to be used on our own Santa faces as beards,” Kathy says. “We dye wool for our own use and to sell to crafters. We also supply raw wool for other craft projects and for people to wash and process on their own. We send out raw wool to be processed into roving and machine-spun yarn.
“We are always looking for new products to be made with wool. Some of these new products require sewing and felting. Most Amish ladies are very good sewers due to the fact that they make most of their families’ clothing.
“We have Amish women who produce wonderfully crafted wool items for us,” Kathy says. “We provide them with the wool and the design and they make the products. Everything is handmade by sewing or using a foot treadle sewing machine.”
The women do not use powered knitting equipment because of their religious beliefs.
These beliefs cover most aspects of day-to-day living and include prohibitions or limitations on the use of electricity, telephones and automobiles.
Kathy says products are usually not completed at one time, but over a period of time by the Amish women when they have spare time away from their family duties.
The business keeps the Kirkwoods busy all year long.
“I retired from a 40-hour a week job for an 80-hour week job,” Kirkwood says.
During the winter months of January, February and March they work to build up inventory for the coming year. March and April sees them busy with lambing, shearing, and working with the sheared wool.
“When we first started lambing we did so in January and February,” Kirkwood says. “The sheep and lambs did fine, but it was too cold for us. Now we start lambing in mid-March and have an area in the barn if we need to supply heat for a lamb.
Tumbleweed, the flock guard llama took over from a donkey that was just too efficient. “He kept the sheep herded up in such a tight group, he wouldn’t let them eat,” Kirkwood says.
“Then the fun begins with cleaning the barn, feeding the animals, hauling hay, straw, and grain, hoof trimming, vet work and a lot of paper work,” Kirkwood says.
They handle all the farm work themselves except for hoof trimming and shearing.
“The sons of an Amish friend, Levi Hershburger and his younger brother Raymond Hershburger, help me trim hoofs as needed,” Kirkwood says. “We hire a professional shearer from the area, Bill Herman. Some of our sheep he shears twice a year and some once a year.”
The Kirkwoods rotate their flock through six fields. In the summer they are fed oats in the morning and turned out to pasture. In the evening they are feed oats and hay. They also have free choice of salt.
The sheep can leave the barn year-round, weather permitting. If the temperature is lower than 30°F with a high wind, or the snow is too deep, they stay in the barn.
In the winter, they’re fed oats and hay in the morning, hay again at about noon and oats and hay in the evening.
The flock is guarded from predators by a llama named Tumbleweed and Kirkwood says she earns her keep.
“We’ve seen her in action a couple different times,” he says. “She can lower her head, run fast, kick sideways and backwards, and spit. Anything that gets in that pasture is fair game. If the sheep are in danger, she also herds them into the barn and out of harm’s way.”
Getting It Sold
There’s one thing a former purchasing manager is well aware of and that’s marketing.
“Over the year we participate in 10 to 11 wool and craft shows,” Kirkwood says.
Some are wool-related events such as the Great Lakes Fiber Festival in Wooster, Ohio. Others are more craft related, such as Christmas Arts and Crafts Show in Akron, Ohio, and the “Christkindl Markt” at the Cultural Center for the Arts in Canton.
They have also visited the iconic Maryland Sheep and Wool Show four times.
Their products are stocked in area shops such as Sol’s in Berlin, Ohio, Wendell August Forge in Berlin, Ohio and The Inn at Honey Run in Millersburg, Ohio.
The Kirkwoods opened their year-round farm shop “Wool and More” in the spring of 2011. The shop is open Monday through Friday noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to noon. Previously they had used their house basement as a store.
The shop stocks top quality raw wool and roving in white and natural colors, blends, homespun and machine spun yarn from their flock, spinning, knitting and felting supplies. Decorative sheep, Christmas ornaments, floor rugs, floral designs, bears and purses line the shelves.
“Everything we have in the shop is made from wool or is partially made from wool,” Kirkwood says.
Many products are labeled with the name of the actual sheep that provided the wool.
“I can appreciate the fact that I can look out there and know where it came from,” Kathy says.
The Kirkwoods have the advantage of living in an area that has the largest Amish population in America and is a goldmine of tourists. There are also excellent wool and craft shows in the area that run throughout the year.
They are seeing repeat customers for their wool products such as roving and yarn and finished items such as crocheted scarves, pet beds and other hand-made gifts.
On-farm “Wool & More” retail shop stocks merchandise made from the farm’s bounty.
They sell only original items, created from their own imaginations.
“We always say we like that first-time customer, but we really like that second-time customer, because that’s when you know you’re doing it right,” Kathy says.
Their www.kirkwoodfarm.com website has generated both domestic and international customers and they have shipped to about 30 states in the U.S. and several countries in Europe.
“We feel what we have is some of the best wool and products available,” Kathy says. “All our products are handmade and are one of a kind. The prices are determined by the cost and labor involved.”
John Kirkwood says to be successful with a small operation a farmer needs a general plan and a mission statement.
“Learn all you can and apply what works best for you,” he says. “I once read that your vocation should be your vacation.
“Be ready for peaks and valleys and stay focused.
“We have put together a successful niche business with help from a lot of wonderful people,” Kirkwood says. “You don’t need big acreage or a large flock to make a lifestyle out of sheep farming.
“It can be hard work, but it is extremely satisfying.”