Farming is a changing industry; more and more women are principal operators of farms. The 2007 Census of Agriculture reports more than 300,000 women are operating farms, up almost 30% from five years earlier. (Click on the image to the left for a larger view.)
Melissa Lines, owner/operator of Skylines Farm in Harvard Idaho, near the state’s western border, is one of those women. On about 65 acres she raises around 50 sheep, purebred Great Pyrenees dogs, a few head of cattle, and a couple of horses. It is not a job for the faint of heart; and Ms. Lines is NOT Little Bo Peep.
Sheep production is also changing. Sheep herds across the country are shrinking; in 2010, almost two-thirds of growers had herds under 100 head, up from 59% in 1989. And by 2007, more than twice as many women were raising sheep and goats than men.
Idaho has much smaller sheep farms than the national average. In 2007, 90% of farms raising sheep and lambs had herds under 100. And over the period 2002 to 2007, the number of farms operated by women who raise sheep or goats went up nearly 39%, from 165 to 229.
Traveling with a military family as a child and growing up in Chicago to become a corporate executive, Melissa is an unlikely farmer. She will tell you that it was a farm visit when she was 4 years old that convinced her she wanted to work with animals, but it took decades for that dream to come true. In 1990, it was at an intensive livestock master program offered by the University of Idaho Extension that Melissa fell in love with sheep. Today she raises about 50 sheep on her hilly piece of land.
Focused, organized, and with a practical business inclination, Lines learned her trade by reading as many books and publications as she could find and attended all of the classes, workshops, and conferences available in a four state area. Experienced as a technical writer of training manuals, Melissa structured her business carefully.
Skylines Farm’s success today comes from four closely related “product lines:”
- Wool and wool products: premium natural-colored and white raw fleece and roving
- Sustainably raised meat: grassfed beef and lamb
- Breeding stock: Romney sheep and Great Pyrenees dogs trained to protect the sheep from predators
- Educational products: on-farm workshops, farm immersions (3-day and 6-day), apprenticeships, and University of Idaho Extension classes
“It’s tough to get experience through apprenticeships; beginning farmers are just going for it, but they will make mistakes,” says Melissa. “There are so few role models for new farmers, no one to teach them and give them the experience to avoid making basic mistakes.”
The last 20 years have given Melissa the experience and confidence to now share her knowledge with new farmers. She has developed a series of workshops and farm “intensives” around hands-on experience with animals. Her on-farm workshops include subjects like Lambing School, Sustainable Small-Scale Sheep Production, and Rotational Grazing with Livestock Guardian Dogs.
In the works are other educational products for sheep raisers including podcasts and videos of workshops, webinars, printed reference materials such as organic parasite control, lambing management, training livestock guardian dogs, and more.
It was also her corporate experience that taught Lines to market her products and the Internet as been Skylines’ primary marketing tool since 1998. Melissa also teaches a class called Marketing with a Farm Website, to share what she has learned about using the Internet as a sales and marketing tool.
Nearly every year, the farms’ production has been sold out through the website. This year’s entire wool production (500-600 pounds) has been sold, all the beef is called for, and only a few “locker lambs” remain.
While Skylines Farm fleeces are premium priced, they are highly sought after. The wool ranges from pure white and solid brown to a naturally variegated combination of several colors. The fleeces are spotless; you’ll never find burrs, thistles, or other plant matter or dirt in them; each is cleaned twice by hand before shipment. Most are reserved months in advance and customers often buy the wool from the same ewe year after year.
Blending knowledge, passion, and experience – and a desire to teach others – Melissa Lines represents the new Idaho sheep farmer. She is a businesswoman, a marketing expert, an artisan, and an educator. It is women like her that make it possible for new farmers – women and men – to find their dream and to be successful.
Read more about Melissa and Skylines Farm at Skyline’s website.