A lonely lambing season for Northfield farm family

Noah Fish
Forum News Service

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — The world and the wheel that Theresa Bentz uses to make yarn from wool keeps spinning even during a pandemic.

Theresa and Jake Bentz are the operators of Get Bentz Farm, located on 40 acres in Northfield, overlooking the Cannon River Valley in southern Minnesota.

The couple raises Icelandic sheep for meat and textile products but said the pandemic has made it difficult for them to find a butcher to process their meat.

“It’s kind of changed our business model, because we typically would piece out our animals and then sell them as individual cuts at markets,” she said. “Now we’re finding that we have to sell them as whole and half lambs.”

A lot of the fiber markets where they would sell their fiber products have been canceled, as well as some of the farmers markets on which they rely to sell products. The pandemic also has forced Theresa and Jake to cancel events on the farm they had planned, and they are no longer taking customers at the farm. Theresa Bentz said that’s made for a lonely lambing season.

“But lambing this year was really good,” she said. “I think our mild spring made it easier.”

They added 27 lambs to their flock, which she said is a “really good bumper crop”.

“A lot of those have already been sold if they are breeding stock, and we’re in the process of selling the meat,” she said.

They are waiting for the grass to get a little bit taller before getting the animals out to the pasture.

While butchering their meat has turned out to be a hassle, they’ve noticed an uptick in other parts of their business, Bentz said.

“There’s been a steep increase in customers wanting woolen products and yarn,” she said. “Things to do with their hands, while their at home socially isolated.”

The couple thinks the fallout in the food supply chain from the pandemic is enough to change the way people get products in the future.

“Everything is just-in-time inventory,” said Jake Bentz. “Toilet paper, clothes, meat — it’s all done in the same way.”

They both have to work off-farm jobs in order for their operation to continue, said Theresa Bentz. With two kids on the farm with them (3-year-old Opal and 14-year-old Pad), they are grateful that they still have health insurance.

Jake works in IT, and said his job has pretty much stayed the same, except instead of going in for a couple days each week, he’s now entirely remote.

“They did some salary reduction, and our 401k has been discontinued for the year,” he said. “Otherwise it’s the same job.”

Bentz has been working in and studying medicine since her early 20s. While getting her masters she began to see how insecure our food system was, which motivated her to get into farming.

“So we just decided one day we were going to do it ourselves,” she said. “And here we are, six years later.”

Pad Bentz remembers that day, although it’s kind of a blur to him.

“It’s way better being on a farm and being able to just go out in the field or just go into the woods whenever,” he said.

From the ICU to the farm

Along with being a shepherd, Bentz is an occupational therapist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She works in the ICU with patients who’ve just had brain or spine surgeries. She’s been furloughed from the job since April due to the pandemic.

“They furloughed a lot of us rehab people when they stopped doing elective surgeries,” she said.

She described working during the beginning of the pandemic and said that Mayo did a really great job of locking things down.

“I was there at the time when they said only visitors can come to the ICU if the person is dying,” she said. “Then the next day, nobody can come, and the buses were canceled.”

Around the time she was furloughed, she was having to show her badge and get her temperature taken before entering the building.

“There’s a lot they’re doing right,” she said.

Fortunately, as soon as she found out that she’d be furloughed, Bentz was able to file for unemployment, which she called a “lifesaver.” She said being furloughed has been a blessing for the most part, because without child care available, she’s not sure what she’d do if she had to continue going into work.

Bentz said August is when she expects to be back on the job, but the recent announcement that elective surgeries would begin again in Minnesota could mean she goes back sooner.

“They have that title of ‘elective’ for these surgeries, which makes it seem like it’s not a big deal,” she said. “But when you have a brain tumor that’s changing sizes and you’re having seizures, that’s not really elective anymore.”

She’s not scared of going back sooner than later, if she gets the call.

“I trust where I work,” she said. “It’s the best hospital in the world.”

Bentz compares the breakdown and shortages at hospitals to what’s going on in the meat processing industry.

“A hospital maintains its capacity at like 90% all of the time, so you can’t have a massive wave of sickness and expect that to not overflow quickly,” she said. “Just like the meat packing industry — one kink in the operation and it all goes downhill.”

Theresa Bentz, who operates Get Bentz Farm in Northfield with her husband, spins wool from sheep on an old-fashioned wheel under the eye of her daughter, Opal. Bentz has been furloughed since April from her off-farm job as an occupational therapist.