Fully Engaged Farming at Sophie’s Icelandic Sheep

Written  by Sarah Lillegard; Photographed by Sarah Lillegard & Sophie Sheppard

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

There is never a quiet season here. Even with the hoop houses cleared of their summer harvest and the small flock of Icelandic sheep fresh from a fall shearing, the farm is still rich with growth. The hoop houses are being planted for winter crops and, as the sheep scuff through the pasture leaves, their wool is already starting to grow out from the fall shearing. This is the 333 Family Farm (pronounced “triple three”) in Lake City, California. The farm and the flock are stewarded by Sophie Sheppard and her husband Lynn Nardella, along with their son Jason Diven, his wife Sarah Denison, and their two children Keegan and Mackenzie.

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

The 333 Family Farm is like concentric circles with the farm bringing together three generations of interests. Within that are Sophie’s Icelandic Sheep for lamb and wool fleeces, which Sophie manages with help from Lynn. She also runs Grandma’s Garden, which sells produce through seasonal CSA boxes. After moving his family onto the farm in 2016, her son Jason now does custom grazing and runs a herd of Galloway cattle. Jason manages the cattle using intensive grazing, and Sophie’s sheep are on a modified rotational program, all of which are part of managing the landscape to build soil carbon and protect their wetlands that support Greater Sandhill Cranes.  Sarah raises chickens for eggs and meat under Mother Cluckers and, not to be left out, Keegan and Mackenzie have a patch where they grow and sell pumpkins to raise money for the local 4-H.

Previously known as Lake City Swiss Dairy, the farm has been around for decades with one barn built at the turn of the century and another in the 1930’s as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) “milking parlor”. Like the farm itself, Sophie’s stories vibrate between the past and the present with her passion making every moment seem like the most recent. When she talks about the farm and the flock, it’s hard to know whether they have been here for a year or for twenty. Regardless, there’s the feeling that things on the farm are never taken for granted.

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

When Sophie and Lynn first came to Surprise Valley, they were instantly enamored with the farmhouse on the Lake City Swiss Dairy property. For years, Sophie followed up annually with the owner, checking to see if the house was available. When the opportunity finally arose to buy it, the 333-acre farm came along with it. As Sophie describes that moment, she laughs a little saying; “I was going to buy Lynn a cement mixer for his birthday that year.” Instead, the two of them pooled everything and bought a farm—and then immediately drafted a business plan to keep them and that farm afloat by growing hay. For the last fifteen years they have been learning as they go; making adjustments, letting time pass, seeing what comes, and then adjusting again. “If you are paying attention, you learn.”

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

In the spring of 2005, a few years after moving onto the farm, Sophie got her first sheep, a breed called Jacob. With a flock started, she dug into researching breeds and settled on Icelandic sheep as her ideal. Sophie then contacted Susan Chappell of Sunnyside Farm who connected her with a rescue flock of Icelandic sheep that are polled (meaning they don’t grow horns). The opportunity to take on the flock came quickly and Sophie might have hesitated, but only for a moment. “I looked at Bonnie (Chase) and asked, ‘What should I do?’ She said ‘Borrow my trailer and go down and get them.’” That rescue flock was the beginning of Sophie’s Icelandic Sheep which now ranges from 15–50 head.

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

But like the farm, at the roots of the present are the past. Sophie’s interest in sheep and fiber started in 2005, but the roots of that interest actually began in 1896 when her grandmother’s spinning wheel was brought over from Sweden. This wheel, made by her great-grandfather, was for spinning flax. Since Sophie was the only granddaughter, she inherited the wheel along with its precarious tension (which controls the speed of the wheel) and a treadle worn with the impression of a century of use. Having this heirloom as a functioning piece of her family’s history prompted Sophie to learn wool spinning.

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

In Surprise Valley, Sophie met Bettie Parman, Bonnie Chase and other fiber-enthusiasts through Warner Mountain Weavers. “We moved up here because of the place, not the people. Turns out that there is an incredible group of people out here. They are [] the most interesting group of risk-takers I have ever met.” Bettie encouraged Sophie to come to a spinning demonstration she was putting on at the fair. That demonstration solidified Sophie’s desire to spin wool and so she cut her teeth learning on a Navajo spindle. Once she had progressed enough, Bettie declared it was time for her to buy a fleece and so scouring and carding were added to the skill-building process. Now, walking through the house and studio, Sophie’s knit shawls are draped on the backs of chairs and across spinning wheels, their colors reflecting her flock and the high desert landscape.

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

Looking out over Sophie’s flock, especially before a shearing, their wool ranges in tones from sandstone to charcoal. That spectrum of colors is no accident. When making breeding decisions, Sophie evaluates size and conformation of the sheep, along its fiber quality, gentleness and looks. Each of these considerations informs components of her flock: their health, their fleeces, their mothering ability, and damned if they don’t look beautiful in the pasture. That “looks” factor is purely up to what catches Sophie’s eye, but it’s not form without function. From Lynn’s tooled leather bags to Sophie’s bent willow couch, everything around here seems to have a function as much as a beautiful form. Those sandstone fleeces are growing as the flock grazes in the pastures and around the orchard, helping to maintain healthy soil and a variety of perennial, annual and biannual grasses.  Form and function are interrelated.

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

Breeding for gentleness is another distinction of the flock. Sophie believes that the best mothering ewes are the most gentle. It also means that the flock is very easy to handle, which is helpful for lambing and shearing seasons. Lambing has taken place in the barn for so many years that the ewes go in of their own accord when they are ready to drop. With the familiarity of the barn and the ewes’ ease of being handled, Sophie and Lynn can step in during lambing, if needed (which it rarely is). Luckily there has been no predation on the flock, with practices like lambing in the barn and pasturing close to the house helping with that. In fact, for years, Sophie and Lynn spent summer nights sleeping outside with the flock. Sophie describes waking up in the gazebo with her sheep surrounding her as one of the best feelings.

When asked about these past fifteen years of farming and shepherding, Sophie doesn’t pause to consider, she knows exactly why she does it. “It engages every bit of your brain: all of your senses, all of your curiosity, all of your memory (if you can live long enough to keep your memory together). The most completely—physically and emotionally and spiritually and mentally—engaging thing I have ever experienced is trying to farm.” Looking out over that farm, there are metaphorical lines from the light in the hoop houses to how Sophie talks about falling in love with sheep. These lines run between and around the flock, Lynn, the spinning wheel, the house, the farm, the owl pellets in the barn and the ease with which their dog “Baby Cakes” clears a fence. “Home” is not enough of a word to encompass the space and neither is “farm.”

Sophie's Icelandic Sheep

Sophie’s Icelandic Sheep offers adult and lamb wool fleeces throughout the year, plus lamb meat. The fleeces are dual coated and light-weight in an assortment of colors. If you’re interested in fleeces or lamb, contact Sophie at (530) 640-1138 and let her know you’re connecting via Fibershed.

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3 thoughts on “Fully Engaged Farming at Sophie’s Icelandic Sheep

  1. I am a spinner and weaver and feline love with the Icelandic sheep that we saw wandering around all over the place in Iceland.
    I am interested in purchasing some of your Icelandic fleece.
    When are they available and what is the cost and shipping to zip code 49431?

    Thanks so much.
    Julie Snyder 231-233-5333

    1. Hi Julie, The best way to contact Sophie is at the phone number shown at the end of the blog post. She may not see the comments posted here since it’s not her website. Good luck!

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