Life is unpredictable. It can leave you breathless; by nature’s beauty one moment, and by nature’s cruelty the next. The trick seems to be in how we maneuver through unforeseen circumstances and curveballs. Farming teaches a person patience, acceptance, strength. It is not for the weak of heart or soul. But then again, I don’t really believe anyone is truly weak of heart or soul. I think that where your raging passion and conviction is found, therein lies the strength you need to muddle through.
But I digress…I was greeted by Silan, Bonnie, and Noel, the warrior watchdogs, from the top of the hill as I turned off of Grandview drive and made the ascent to the Kling Family home. I had been there two weeks prior to witness the spring sheep shearing, and had figured out where to expertly squeeze my Subaru. Barbara Kling came out and introduced me to the nearest group of sheep, curious as to the newcomer with a clicking device so close to them. A wily bear had recently made its presence known, and as Barbara gave me a tour of the farm, she pointed out where it had made its grand entrance into their pastures. Nature, you sly cat. Or bear in this case.
The Kling family raises sheep for both wool and meat, ranging in variety from Icelandic to Cotswolds. A medical family originally from Northern Virginia, the bulk of them now resides in Southwest Virginia, everyone helping out in some way or another on the farm throughout the year. We connected over our Maryland/Northern Virginia affiliations and about the history of my hometown, Frederick, while we drove up to visit the teenage watchdogs, Max and Maria, as they attempted to herd me. They are very dedicated workers.
Barbara strikes me as a woman of strength and dignity. She joked that she used to hike all over these hills, but that those days are over and she’s okay with that. I gathered that she takes life like she takes farming, all in its stride.
You can find stunning multi-colored yarns, all things wool, garlic, lamb biscuits, and meat at their table on Saturday mornings at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market. Keep reading to meet some of the sheep and find out about how they arrived here…
S: You guys are good watchdogs, aren’t you?
B: He’s a Karakachan from Bulgaria. And I got her because she’s supposed to be good at things like bears and we were beginning to have a bear come in. It’s better now. Doll and her two little boys. She always looked like Dresden doll, so that’s why we called her Doll. She’s pretty old now and we hadn’t bred her for a couple of years, and I said, why don’t we just breed her and if she doesn’t do well, she doesn’t. But she’s been very happy and as you can see, she’s a good mother. Do you see that kind of chunky one that just went that way?
S: Yes, yes!
B: He’s half Texel and this is his mother. The Texels are supposed to be worm-resistant. For instance, the father…they never wormed him and he did very well. And this is one of our bottle babies. We went in and the mother had lodged…they do this every once in a while…they’ll lay down and they can’t get up. In a hole. Oh, it was awful because that was such a nice ewe and these are her first lambs. All of them aren’t nice.
S: Like, gentle-mannered?
B: Yeah. Some of them just don’t want anything to do with you, and they’ll run and everything.
S: She looks so sweet! And “bottle babies” is a name for orphans?
B: Yeah. That’s what we always call them. If they’re on a bottle. And when you raise them then they’re usually your friends for always. And I’ll tell you also, the Texel, they grow faster and they’re very chunky. He was born the end of April, I guess, and by September he was weighing over one hundred pounds. And when you look at him, he’s just little. He’s just short. He’s not anything near the big ones, but their hind quarters and the leg. These are all Icelandics here for some reason. They’re just not as big, but of course their wool is a little unusual. It’s double-coated and that makes it harder in some ways than the others. But I think the Texel, they can also do pretty nice things with. I saw a picture in a magazine that was like embroidery, almost. It was so pretty. I think the lady had crocheted it.
S: Because each different breed brings new texture to the wool and new challenges?
B: That’s absolutely true. Now, the Cotswolds are a bigger sheep than the Icelandic. And they have a beautiful wool. When they’re first sheared, there’s a shine like none of the others that I’ve seen. Now I’m sure there are other breeds that do because there’s so many of them, but they have a wave. I’ve got one out there and she’s just beautiful. Kind of bumpy, wavy wool.
S: And you have your shearing days twice a year, was it?
B: Yes, because of the Icelandics. Now I’ve heard that some people have written that they shear in the spring, but then they don’t shear in the fall. We’re not taking chances like that. The weather here, they can do fine. We shear them in September, which seems like a shame. We’ve got all this beautiful wool you’re taking off for the winter, but they do very well and I know in Montana and places like that, they do the same thing. They’ve got this fat underneath.
S: Like nature knows how to do that. What’s the next step after you shear? You have to pick through?
B: They’ve got a lot of hay and stuff in. A lot of this will just go to the wool pool, Midstates Wool Pool, I think is what it is. They’re in Ohio. The very best we’ll keep. We’ve got a friend who likes to make yarn and stuff. Then in the fall, we take it down to SAFF, Southeastern Animal Fiber Festival, in Asheville. We sell most of them. We had the first Icelandics that went there and the people were really looking at them and wondering if they wanted to buy any and everything. They bought enough and they come back and get them. But there’s others who are bringing Icelandics, so I don’t usually bother much any of the others because that’s what most of the other people bring. Let them have theirs and we’ll have ours.
S: I know your daughter, Jennfier, does a lot of work here. Your other daughter, Susan, I asked her, were you guys raised on a farm? And she laughed and said, no, no, we grew up in Northern Virginia. And she was telling me that most of you were in the medical field. I would love to know a little bit about when your children were younger and how you ended up farming.
B: Well, I guess I’ll start at the very beginning. When I was a very little girl, they took me out to Illinois to my grandmother’s family farm. A real German family. My mother did not speak English even till they took her to Philadelphia. She was born in Lockwood, Missouri and then they took her to Philadelphia. They said, well why didn’t you teach her English? My grandmother said, I should teach her English? She spoke English very well and she became a teacher. When I was on the farm, I can remember them lifting me up and showing me a sow. There was a sow there with a bunch of little piggies, and I always wanted to live on a farm. So, in Northern Virginia we had two acres and we had chickens and sheep, and you know, Sue had a horse, but we didn’t keep it where we were. There was just too many people right there, even with two acres. That’s now all apartments, it’s gone. We were on Gallows Road, where there had been a hanging tree.
B: We had one on the farm that just went down a few years ago.
S: Oh my gosh.
B: Yeah, they told me there was a card game and I don’t know whether the one man thought the other man was cheating, but he shot and killed him and they took him up and hung him. Put him on a wagon and pushed him down.
S: That gives me chills.
B: Well, that’s the way it was. But that’s where Gallows Road came from. Then we bought…well, we were basically threatened. Either you sell, or we’re going to court. We’ll go without you. Because they bought everything around us. And I thought, huh, well, I don’t want to stay here with everything around. So, we sold and we were able to get seven acres in Oakton, as I remember, and an old French provincial home. We lived there for awhile and the taxes doubled. It was just every year, there was more and more. And I thought, well let’s see, another couple years and we won’t be able to afford to live here, ya know? And my husband had retired, so. Sue is, as you know, a physical therapist. Michael, her husband, is a pharmacist. They came down here and he got a job with, I guess Johnston Memorial to start with. Then Jennifer became an occupational therapist. I’m an old nurse. Michael’s son, Carl, is also a pharmacist and he’s married to a doctor. They’re young and they’re up in Richmond right now. But I had laughed, I used to say to Jennifer, you should marry a doctor and then we can open our own practice.
S: How long have you been here?
B: I can’t tell you exactly, but it’s going on thirty years.
S: For me, the thing that keeps drawing me back to Southwest Virginia happens to be the mountains, and just the feel of it. I’m from Maryland, and we’re near the Appalachian Mountains, but it’s different. It feels different down here, and there’s something that’s so beautiful about it. I think every place comes with its own difficulties.
B: Yes. Difficulties and beauty.
S: But, is there something that drew you the most…
B: To here? Well, it’s ‘cause Sue and Michael moved here and we wanted to move out of Northern Virginia. I said I learned a lot of patience sitting and trying to get out of my driveway. It was just awful. It got to the point where there was just a little slack time, maybe between 10 to 11 and then it was just constant. So, we moved here because they were here. Our son, Ken, had moved to Kentucky and that was totally a different state. Ken is my oldest, then we have Sue and Carl and Jennifer is the youngest. You can stop here. (the car, not my constant talking) This is the Texel ram, the one with the patch on him. You may need to go down a little just so you can see him.
S: Look at that patch!
B: He’s not supposed to have that. His name is Arnold but we called him Patch for a while. But you see how small Patch is? If you could see the back of him, he’s kind of chunky in the back. We got them at West Virginia State University, I think it is, and they were afraid that nobody would want him because he has a patch. We said, oh no, we’re happy. The reason we wanted him was because he was one of the smallest to be born, and yet he weighed as much or more than all of them except one.
S: Lift your head up, bud!
B: Come on Patch, come on Arnold.
S: That’s what gives him character.
B: Yes, it does.
S: I love that you can remember the names of so many of them, too.
B: The rams go in here every night. We feed them in this one and then in the morning we feed them over here. And then, in the big field we’ve had a whole bunch of ewes. You can stop and smell here all the honeysuckle. This is our garlic field. We used to have a great big field.
S: I always get the elephant garlic from you all!
B: Yes, both is in there. A couple years ago there was some virus or something.
S: It seems to switch off every year which plant has the virus.
B: It just seems like, no matter what you do…Oh, careful here! You have to be very careful or you’ll lose your wheel.
S: Ha! Yeah, you’re right.
B: The creek runs here…and that’s the one I like best. His name’s Harry.
B: Harry, yeah. Hello, Harry! He’s an Icelandic and a good size.
S: An isolated Icelandic.
B: Oh no, they’ll all go together. If you look up, you can see that that pasture is cut off. So, we try to make different pastures but very often they get through. The Icelandics particularly are really bad.
S: At escaping? Do they jump or do they push through?
B: I wouldn’t say really jump, but I’ve seen them walk over. See the fence right here? It’s low? And it could be the bears going over that too. I can’t tell ya, but they’ll do that kind of thing and they’ll go under. We’ve got that orange netting down to try and keep them in. Jennifer’s worked hard on the fencing here.
S: Little escape artists. Farming seems to be keeping up. I think that’s what it is. Keeping up every day.
B: You never quite get ahead unless you’re a lot better than we are.
S: But you know, it’s interesting, because out of all the interviews, every person says the same thing.
B: I can remember someone saying, and I need to do this, and that…that’s the way it is.
S: That’s life.
B: That’s life on the farm. In other things, in nursing, you get 8 hours, maybe 10. But then you go home. But this is always with you. We’ll go up now to the tobacco barn. There’s another group. There’s the dogs! They’ll be two in October.
S: Look at ‘em!
B: This is Max sitting and watching now. Maria is his sister. I just wanted something easy. Hello, Max! How are you doing?
S: They know their job!
B: Oh yeah. Do you know your sheep were down there all by themselves? I could’ve taken them away, yeah!
S: It’s like they’re talking to each other.
B: They’re hoping we’re gonna feed them, I bet. Hello, Max! Yes, a good boy. Ah, you’re all full of hay, what have you been doing? Huh? Laying under that hay feeder? Such good dogs, aren’t you?
S: It’s okay! You’re very good at your job. (as they attempt to wrangle me and bark me to exhaustion)
B: They’re just getting down the deep bark. Maria’s is higher than his is.
S: This is a beautiful barn.
B: Well, it’s nothing compared to what they have in the North, but you know, it’s a good barn for here.
S: I love how the wood slants.
B: Yeah, this was to strengthen it. Look at the moon there! I just noticed it. Max likes stuff, he brings in gloves that people have dropped on the farm, I guess. I don’t know where he goes all the time.
S: I love that they keep themselves very busy.
B: They’re doing.