American small farms are on the decline, but sheep farms in particular have taken a huge plunge, falling 90% over the past century. So when Catherine Friend, a city-dwelling writer who hates both manual labor and getting dirty, reluctantly moves with partner Melissa to run a sheep farm in the back country of Minnesota, she has absolutely no clue what she’s doing or why.
In Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet (Da Capo, $16), Friend gets thrown from a “fairly boring, urban life” into an alien world of wool shearers, runaway sheep, jumping llamas, pasture goddesses and crazy knitting “fiber-freaks.” Yet she doesn’t catch the sheep bug. She humorously describes her preference for staying inside, eating Tostitos and “pretend-farming” on Farmville, rather than riding a tractor or assisting an ewe through labor.
Nonetheless, Friend maintains her role as “backup farmer” for 15 years. Continuing to write, she reflects on the daily obstacles the 10,000-year-old profession of shepherding brings to a middle-aged woman with “shrinking” jeans, hot flashes and random bouts of tears.
Much of her eventual memoir is dedicated to the ups and down of raising 50 sheep with little experience, but it takes an even more interesting turn when Friend begins to express her frustration toward the dying market for small farms. Finding herself earning only $27/year from wool production while cheaply made, toxic and polluting clothing overflows shopping malls and mega-marts, she starts rallying to keep farms like hers lucrative and alive. Through detailed research and a hesitant but eventual surrender to the “fiber-freaks,” Friend comes through with a meaningful and informative narrative on the forgotten art of shepherding.