Takeaway: Olga Elder’s love of cheese made from sheep’s milk came led her to raising sheep on her 50+ acre historic farm outside Burlington, North Carolina. Despite the endurance and optimism required to farm, she and her husband, John, consider themselves fortunate to do so.
Reading time: 3 min 52 sec
What I love about this farm: How they honor history and heritage on multiple levels and their appreciation of the farm life.
Farmers don’t always start with the passion for farming – sometimes it’s the love of the outputs that lead to the love of the inputs. In Olga’s case, it was her love of Manchego cheese (a specialty of Spain) that led to her love of sheep. In her 40s, she decided something in her life had to change, and she pivoted from the insurance business in Durham to farming west of Burlington.
Three heritage breeds of sheep are raised on their farm, the Navajo Churro, Corriedale, and Dorset. The name of their Navajo Churro ram, Chester Nez, honors the World War II Navajo code talker. We got a glimpse of him during the Piedmont Farm Tour, but he and his entourage were feeling a bit camera shy that day. Not so for the llamas that tend the herd and the rambunctious lambs. Some of the lambs were just a day old – Olga says the colors will fade with time, so the inky black lambs will fade to gray.
Manchego may have led her to sheep, but it was the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy that led her to heritage breeds when she was getting started a dozen years ago. Common breeds of sheep for commercial production are Rambouillet, Suffolk crosses or Merinos. Producers favor these breeds due to their high yield of meat per carcass weight; over time, as other breeds have fallen into disfavor, this breed is now de facto, so that any breed with a different sized carcass becomes less efficient during processing. Hence, without anyone raising them, breeds like Navajo Churro, Corriedale and Dorset, are in danger of being lost. (I could write an entire post – multiple posts – about heritage breeds. Perhaps I will!)
On the tour, someone asked if Olga shears the sheep and whether she practices spinning. For shearing, they have a competitive shearer (yes, that’s a thing—it’s fantastic), a professor from West Virginia, who comes down once a year for a open-farm sheep shearing demonstration. For the latter, they do send their wool and hides to Bucks County Furs in Quakertown, Pennsylvania for processing.
The sheep aren’t the only heritage represented on the farm. John grew up on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina. He joined Olga in her adventure not too long after she bought the farm in 2005. The farm itself dates to the 1780s, and the buildings are among the oldest in Alamance County.
“First designs will change” she’s heard said. She’s stuck with sheep for multiple reasons, not least because their relatively small size lends itself to ease of handling, which offsets the extra care they require. They learn new things all the time, like a bit of stale beer for upset sheep tummies.
The leap from the world of insurance to the risk-filled world of farming serendipitously landed her in the right place and time to meet her husband, John.
Olga noted that she had taken spinning and other fiber classes when she first started, and then mentioned in passing that she did so “as a respect for the traditions”. She humbly seemed to take for granted that anyone in her position would have done the same, but I found her appreciation for the traditions and heritage as an outward sign of her farming and life philosophy. I’m grateful she left the insurance business for farming—we need more folks like her.
Keep an eye on their events page for the next sheep shearing day or the Piedmont Farm Tour. They open the farm to guests who get to watch the professor in action, ask questions, and explore farm life. And if Olga has made any food – definitely plan to have some. She is a self-professed foodie and it shows: the pate and sandwiches she made for the farm tour were delicious.
And if you can’t visit in person…
What they sell and where to find their products:
Dryer balls, decorative wool ornaments, dog toys:
Meat and wool products:
Durham Farmers’ Market
- Main Season Market: Saturdays from 8 am-12 pm (April 6 through November 23, 2019)
- Mid-Week Market: Wednesday from 3-6 pm (April 17 through October 9, 2019)
- Winter Market: Saturdays from 10 am-12 pm (December 7, 2019 through March 28, 2020)