Cathe Capel, 68, got her first introduction to sheep farming In her 20s. After marrying, Cathe gained experience with sheep at her mother in law’s farm in Wyoming. However, for many years her main foray into agriculture was keeping a horse stable. While she enjoyed the horses, she did not enjoy managing the people. Which is why in 2007 Capel gave up the stable and bought a farm near Sidney, Illinois where she began raising sheep.
After five years of maturing her herd, Capel and the 30 or so sheep she raised at any given time started producing enough meat and wool for her to commercialize. The turn toward profitability, however, did not start until she stopped using a heritage breed of sheep. She replaced them with Corriedales which mature quickly and allow for a short time to market. Altogether, Capel ran her farm for around a decade and a half before retiring from farming after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
What Capel most enjoyed about farming was the interspecies solidarity that she formed with ewes when they were lambing. While the around the clock care lambing requires is taxing, Capel looks back at the relationships she built with her animals fondly. What left the greatest impression on her were the ewes welcoming her into the rearing process as a co-participant and not merely as an outsider imposing her will upon them.
Agriculture: It’s Future and Present
In my interview with Capel, I asked her what she considered to be the most pressing issues affecting small to mid-sized farming operations like hers. Capel zeroed in on several problems: the cost of land, agricultural consolidation, climate change, labor, and commodity crop consumption habits.
Land Acquisition and Consolidation
Capel cites increasing land prices as a huge barrier to entry for farmers who want to break into the market. This is especially the case for those wanting to do something different from the large scale monoculture corn and soybean operations that riddle the Illinois landscape. The greater the barrier to entry, the harder it is to displace the large, vested interests of capital that have taken control of the American countryside.
Capel is keen to refer to these large operations as industrial. These vertically integrated farms operate with fine-tuned logics of profit maximization, but also with automated machinery programmed to minimize labor and resource outputs on the farm. The more industrial the farm, the easier it is to create economies of scale that chase away smaller operations.
Farms like Capel’s that are not running large operations but are producing high quality wool used for boutique yarn, exist in a precarious space. Smaller sheep farms must rely upon larger operations to sell their wool to aggregators, who, in turn, process the wool and bring it to market. Only larger farms can independently satisfy the demand coming from major metropolitan areas along the coasts and Chicago.
Climate Change and the Labor of Sustainability
While market forces are creating barriers to entry for farmers wanting to practice less conventional agriculture, the changing climate is creating new obstacles for sheep farmers to wrestle with. Unlike goats who have the proclivity to eat nearly anything, sheep are pickier grazers. They prefer softer vegetation and tend to avoid rough grasses and other plants. However, as the temperature warms, it is the rougher grasses that will adapt better to the hotter pastureland. This change in the population of the pasture is a problem for farmers who want to commit to rearing sheep using rotational grazing techniques.
When I asked Capel if she thought organic wool is at all practical, she gave an emphatic, “No.” She explained that the relationship between sheep and parasites makes it difficult for a truly organic wool product. However, she also stressed that sustainable wool is possible if one can provide the labor to use sustainable methods. For her, providing the necessary labor to rotate the pasture every two days was not practical. On the upside, Capel does see some new energy coming into this space from people who are willing to put in the hard work of rearing sheep sustainably.
Commodity Farming and High-Trophic Level Dining
Despite selling animal meat as a professional farmer—lamb, turkey, and chicken—one of the issues that Capel drew attention to in our interview was meat consumption. She broached the issue while discussing the impacts of commodity farming. Commodity crops, while used for processed products like soy lecithin, are in large part going to feed animals.
In the context of climate change, Cathe drew attention to this issue because this system is inefficient. When you eat at higher trophic levels in the food chain, you lose energy. Perhaps effective at producing a high quality protein, animal agriculture driven by commodity farming uses land that could be used for developing local food systems. Furthermore, the current scale of meat consumption has a host of environmental consequences associated with it. These include groundwater depletion, nitrogen leaching, and increased carbon emissions.
Capel’s Vision of Agriculture
Capel’s years of farming and involvement in agriculture helped her develop her own vision of what our food system might be. She sees a system built from a “network of multi-use, food-producing farms in areas around towns, cities, and along the rivers and streams” as an answer to many problems. The greatest upside being greater accessibility to food produced locally. However, such a vision can only be realized, as many solutions ultimately must, through political will in the form of new zoning laws in cities
Now retired from farming, Capel has given her farm over to the management of Savanna Institute for agroforestry experimentation. Using a mix of pine and fruit producing trees to windbreak plots of soybeans and grains, her farm is showcasing a way of agriculture that attempts to pull more carbon from the atmosphere than conventional methods. It stands as a vision for what agriculture might look like if we begin to invest the resources and will to thwart environmental disaster.
When asked what she wanted to share with people considering all the pressing problems facing American agriculture, she wanted to remind people that “farming is a life, not a livelihood. Even those guys doing commodity crop farming are dedicated to what they are doing and believe they are doing the right thing. They care about the land. Anything we do has to engage those farmers too.” In Cathe’s vision for a food system centered on land conservation, stewardship, and local food production, she sees inviting conventional farmers to participate as a must.
To read the interview yourself, click here.