Little lambs make big impression on first-graders

Farm Forum

Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions. And for many first-graders from Jefferson Elementary, those things were little lambs.

“They’re adorable,” said Kaylee Iverson, who was among the students who held and bottle-fed lambs during a recent visit to VanWell Sheep Farm.

More than 400 Watertown first graders boarded school buses to visit farms in the Adopt the First Grade program that has been sponsored for the past three decades by the Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce Agriculture Committee.

While this year marked the first time a sheep farm has been included on the tour, teachers and organizers were pleased with the results.

“It’s really fun for the kids, because they are right at the sheep’s eye level,” said Heidi Stoick, who teaches first grade at Jefferson.

At VanWell Sheep Farm, in fact, there were 8,000 sheep on hand to gaze into those students’ eyes.

Trevor VanWell, president of VanWell Sheep Farm, gained 47 new friends as he guided the first graders through the barns and showed them the chutes where sheep are loaded into trucks for market. In addition, he explained the care and feeding of the animals.

He also shared the importance of the dogs that accompanied the students on their tour.

“The white Pyrenees dogs guard the flocks from danger – including coyotes,” said VanWell. “The border collies help to move the sheep around the farm.” VanWell Sheep Farm currently has 22 guard dogs and four border collies.

In the past three years, the VanWells have grown their flock by about 1,000 a year to 5,000 ewes. Lambs are born in buildings on one of four farmsteads in the area. The VanWells plan for bunches of about 1,000 a month for five months. After a couple of days in a “community pen,” the ewes are moved into larger buildings. Lambs are weaned at 60 days old. VanWell said the animals are shipped to West River pastures starting in May.

While the Jefferson first-graders watched a video about sheep prior to the field trip, teacher Keri Tisher said that nothing compares to actually holding and feeding the lambs.

“One of the questions we always get at the beginning of the school year, is ‘When is our farm trip?'” said Tisher. “They all know it will be part of being in the first grade.”

Ericka Guthmiller, who serves on the Chamber Ag Committee and accompanied the group to VanWell Sheep Farm, said the committee also sees the value of the program. She said not every student gets the opportunity to spend time on a farm, so this program fills a void.

“All the participating farm owners are very enthused about sharing their time with the younger generation,” said Caitlin Voecks, director of marketing and programming for the Watertown Area Chamber. “We’re thankful that they are so willing to do this.”