A Way of Life | The Story of a Sheep Farmer
As a photographer and filmmaker I feel grateful for many things that my career brings to me. One of my favorite things is spending quality time with interesting people and having a glimpse into their lives. During one 'warm' winter day I spent time with such a person and his story did not disappoint. John Stephens is a sheep farmer from a small town in the Finger Lakes area of Upstate New York. While hiking around his property together, I was able to learn a lot about his life's passions.
"I always felt like I was born 100 years late."
John grew up in a sleepy farm town in New York not far from where he lives now. As a young boy he was always wandering Six Mile Creek near his childhood home where he'd find antique bottles and glass. He knew most people saw these bottles as discarded 'trash' but he saw their value. This quickly became an exciting adventure which grew a love for history. As those bottles soon became a cherished collection, he also begin reading very old publications to learn about farming. As John told me this story, I could still feel his childhood sense of wonder that seemed to of never left him.
As John's story dove deeper I found out he didn't play sports like other kids at 13, but he did show a growing interest in music. He started with a $12 guitar his Dad bought him from Woolworth's and the two of them travelled into town weekly for lessons. As John progressed through lessons, his confidence grew and music became a huge sense of pride. His father faithfully went to all of his gigs and made sure John knew how proud he was of his progress. From the ages of 17 to 22, John traveled and made a small living off playing live music. According to John it didn't pay much, but he was living a happy life and that's what mattered.
"I've only ever bought building materials and dirt."
Later in life John became an audiologist and began teaching at Ithaca College. While at Ithaca College in the 70's, John purchased his first fourteen acres of land to fulfill he passion for the outdoors. Over the next several years he acquired more than 200 acres of beautiful land where he built a home, barn, chicken coop and other out buildings. Teaching college allowed a flexible schedule which was perfect so he could take care of his farm. He admitted that building a farm was equally as important to him as teaching. He has raised many animals over the years but has always loved raising sheep.
"Well, I wanted to make socks."
You can tell in an instant that John really cares for his animals. On our way out to the barn where the sheep are kept, I could hear music getting louder as we approached. Sure enough there was a small radio sitting on a wooden shelf playing music to keep them company while he is away. Once he whistles for the sheep they started running like little puppies, happy to see him. I was new, so some of them kept their distance. I needed to find out why he decided to focus on raising sheep in particular, so I asked. John simply answered, "Well, I wanted to make socks." I remember feeling confused. Perhaps I misheard him? I asked again to clarify and received the same answer. Though John's sock making days are over, the sheep still produce almost 100 fleeces per year. He sells the wool to local hand-spinners and some are nice enough to bring John hand-made scarves and socks.
“I’ve learned so much running this farm. Sometimes you need to go out to the barn at 3:00am to bottle feed lambs. So what if it’s 'inconvenient'. It’s just part of what you do.”
The winter in New York is very cold, but the weather seems to not even affect John. To be honest, he was moving faster than I was. You can tell that he is so in-tune with the seasons and the weather. After all, the weather will dictate what tasks can be done around the farm. Each season comes with the usual checklist of things needing to be completed but you need to be willing to shift your focus when the weather takes control.
Even though the weather changes quite rapidly, the one thing that remains constant is the rushing sound of water near John's home. He purposely built his house next to a creek to mimic the sounds of his childhood home near the water. John tells me that he can't sleep with out the familiar sound, so much so that he sleeps with his bedroom window open every day of the year. Rain, snow or shine. If the water level is lower than normal, he just builds up rocks in the river to increase the sound of the water. If it's really cold outside, he'll shut his bedroom door so the rest of the house doesn't get cold, while he seeks warmth under goose down blankets. Apparently there are many times in which you can see your breath in his bedroom.
"When it gets really cold I just shut my bedroom door so the rest of the house doesn't get cold."
In many ways, John is still a young boy at heart. He made his childhood dreams become a reality, he still reads his old publications, wanders the creek near his home with his dog Charlie by his side, and is able to spend everyday outside. What more can you ask for?
I learned many things while spending time with John. We all need to follow our dreams and live the life we once dreamt as a child. There are a lot of things in our lives which may seem like a major hurtle but become a opportunity for growth. Last but not least, there's nothing better than a pair of hand-made wool socks.
Thank you John for teaching me so much.