The Last Word
Vermont's Unlikely Sheep ProducerKyle Partain
Sheep Industry News Editor
While I’m editor of a sheep magazine, Kate Viles had no problem admitting that, “The dogs came first,” when I visited her Sunny Acres Farm in North Hartland, Vt., back in May. Of course, now she’s got three times as many sheep running around the place as she does dogs.
“It just kind of snowballed on me,” she said.
The idea of adding sheep first came up more than a dozen years ago in an effort to help Kate better train her Australian Shepherds for herding competitions.
“The reality is that if you want to get really good at something, you have to be able to do it more than once a week,” she says. “That’s when the sheep became a reality for us. I never in a million years would have thought that I would be a sheep producer.”
It started innocently enough. Kate and husband, Richard, bought a few Katahdin cull ewes because she wasn’t interested in breeding the sheep and she certainly didn’t want to have to shear them each year.
“It seemed like the way to go, but I’m a knitter. I like fiber and all that stuff, so we started thinking about a different breed,” Kate admitted. “We settled on Romneys and about 10 years ago I bought three registered Romney ewes and some crossbreds from two different flocks. That’s how we got into breeding sheep.”
An active dog trainer and competitor, Kate also holds down a nursing job that requires her to work 12-hour, overnight shifts in addition to teaching other prospective dog trainers and competitors.
“Sometimes it feels like we’ve got a few too many irons in the fire,” she says, adding that her husband works as a nurse, as well. “I’m starting to think I’m a little insane to take on all of this. We bred 13 ewes this year – the most we’ve ever bred. But I’m starting to learn more about color genetics in sheep, so I really wanted to figure out what I have in my flock, as far as that goes.”
These days, Kate runs two flocks: one for training the dogs and one for the fiber.
“We’re going to continue breeding sheep, but after a year like this we have to stop and think about how many animals we really want to support. I have a number (25) in my head about how many sheep I think are ideal for us.”
Kate’s love of dogs and penchant for sheep came together in mid-May when the Australian Shepherd Club of New England hosted a farm trial at the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival. Kate and Jake, the 10-year-old veteran at Sunny Acres, competed there.