A Woman of Agriculture: Siri Larsen
Shepherdess & Fiber Artist
By Lauren Lipscomb
Siri Larsen is a sheep farmer, or in her words, an armchair farmer, as well as a spinner, knitter, and fiber artist growing and foraging plants for pigment. She and her farm reside in Eureka, Montana.
Lauren Lipscomb(LL): Let’s begin with your background. Tell me a bit about your upbringing and how it led you to Eureka, Mt and obtaining your sheep.
Siri Larsen(SL): I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle listening to the stories of my mother’s childhood on their farm in Norway. Those were my own childhood bedtime stories, about her and her youth on a subsistence level farm. My grandmother ran the farm while raising her and her seven other siblings. She was one hell of a woman. They grew pretty much everything from wheat to meat to fiber to vegetables to feed for the animals. Everything. So where she came from, I had that as a part of my background. And I think that kind of stuck with me.
My husband Chris and I met in Colorado where, at some point, we realized we wanted to live a bit more rural. Somewhere we could own land. Our realtor and others had suggested checking out Eureka, Montana, thinking it may be a market we could afford to buy into. So we came up here and found about 20 acres within our budget along with a nice little community. With that community and the ability to afford land here, well that was it.
LL: When you moved was it with the potential of taking on animals?
SL: Not necessarily. We only really knew we wanted some acreage. So no, but then over time we realized we had all of this acreage with all of these weeds we were trying to maintain. With that and trying to feed a family we just thought, lets give this a try. I don’t really remember how it all even came about but it must have had a little premeditation as we had some fencing prepared. We just went to a shearing in Kalispell one day and came home with our first three ewes.
LL: Can you tell me some of the basics of your operation? Like, how many sheep do you have right now? What products do you produce and how do you market and distribute your products?
SL: We have about 20 sheep right now. We had a good lambing year. This is probably the most we’ve had other than once before when we then reduced our flock through butchering. We have sold off a few lambs here and there when we have more than we need. We try to keep it this size or smaller. It’s enough to feed our family and feed a few other people in the community like friends or neighbors, sometimes one of our sons’ teachers. And its always more than enough fiber. Since that is all very small scale I’m mainly just marketing either by going to fiber art shows and festivals, a few other local handmade/art fairs. And then online through Etsy.
LL: What does an average day of caring for the sheep look like?
SL: Our average day is keeping an eye on them as we’re coming and going throughout the day. We’re not necessarily out there in the field with them everyday but there will be times when we are. Particularly times like when they are pregnant and lambing we’re out there more, really up close checking on them. Oftentimes we’ll be out in the winter or when deer come through to maintain the electric fencing. It’s something we’re always keeping an eye on and making sure it’s working. In the summer time we’re out there changing irrigation pipe everyday as well. Most times when we’re out there with them it’s mostly just looking them over and make sure everybody looks ok, nobody’s stuck in a fence, or that the rams are separate from the ewes when we want them to be.
LL: What would you say are some of the more physically demanding times and what makes them challenging?
SL: I would say the most physically demanding is probably shearing and sometimes lambing, especially when we have to intervene. Moving the rams from one field to the next can be a bit tricky sometimes but it's not that bad. And then changing irrigation pipe but it depends on if we’re all home then we’ll all go out together and move it really quick but if it’s only one of us it’s certainly longer and more work. We get big bales now for feeding and we just use equipment to do that. When we used to get the small square bales, we’d have to go load them up on a trailer, then load them back out into the barn, and then feed every day from that.
I think I would say shearing is the most physically demanding time though. I realized this last year that I was not going to be able to shear them the traditional way anymore so we borrowed a stand from the 4-H. It’s a different technique but it's something Chris and I can do together by passing the shears back and forth. It’s definitely less demanding on our bodies and at 49 I really don’t want to kill myself or injure myself any more just to get the sheep sheared. And, ya know, its still work, getting them and getting them up on the stand shearer, holding them in place. If we can get a good shearer to come up in the spring then I may be paying somebody to do it but we’ll see what happens when it gets closer to that.
LL: Where did you learn your way with sheep? Did you have someone that you’ve sought advice from that's previously owned sheep as well? Has it just been a figuring it out as you go? Google?
SL: Totally winging it. Books at first, google later, and just winging it. I think over time you just start to get a feel for how they move and when things are going on or if there might be an unplanned pregnancy. We can usually spot it now. Usually... But yeah, I think over time you just get a feel for it. Obviously we didn't grow up this way but it's something you can just do if you want to learn. Just try it. You make mistakes. We’ve had...you know, we’ve made mistakes. We set up a ladder where it fell on a lamb and cut its mouth open and it had trouble feeding. We ended up having to butcher early because it wasn't going to grow fast enough. Just know you’ll make mistakes and you’ll kick yourself for it but I think that’s part of the process, unfortunately.
LL: That’s something I find reassuring though, hearing that you don't have a background in agriculture. I find myself personally quite intrigued by the stories of individuals that have ended up here without it having been a part of their upbringing.
SL: I think there is a lot of people doing that, getting out there on a small scale. Now. But there’s also a lot of information out there that's accessible. And even though I feel like we’re winging it and we have no idea what we’re doing a lot of the time (even though we have a little more knowledge now) we can communicate with so many more people that are doing this. You can find somebody else saying ‘oh look we screwed up too’, you know, somebody that's been doing this for years. Things happen. There’s just a lot of unpredictabilities. So it is reassuring when you’re like ‘oh, I’m too embarrassed to tell anybody about this’ and then you read about somebody else being like “oh, shoot we built our fencing wrong’. And we realise we aren't the only ones that mess up or didn't see that coming. We do grow. It's hard at first but it’s all just part of the process. Things are going to happen.
LL: When you introduce yourself, how do you identify your role and the work you do?
SL: I now introduce myself as a fiber artist. It would be fun to say I am a shepherdess but I’m halfway joking when I say that because I’m not like, out in the mountains herding sheep. I would say we are more like armchair farmers. I like that term a lot because I feel like the sheep are not an all day, everyday, high maintenance. They are certainly always a part of your awareness, things like making sure the electric fencing is working and keeping an eye on that. So while they can be more work at times I would joke about it because I thought, gosh, am I the only one that feels this way about it? But we’ve met other people around the Flathead who, while they may not use the same terminology, they find they feel that way too. It felt like we weren’t the only ones. These are people who have full time jobs and they feel like they can care for sheep without the need to be out there at the crack of dawn or every day and not have to be with them all of the time.
LL: At times within agriculture circles small-scale farms are discredited as being mere hobby farms and struggle to be taken seriously. Is this something you personally have experienced or hold views about? How do you personally identify your operation?
SL: I guess I will just fully admit we are not making a living off of farming. We are feeding our family. What I sell in wool makes a tiny, tiny dent. So we work other jobs to keep them [the sheep]. It’s not ever going to be our full time income but we never intended it to be and I don’t see a problem with that.
As far as not being taken seriously, I don't know, that just never was our intent. I would never want to be subsidized to have our animals. I mean, we subsidize ourselves. It's just part of our experience of having our animals. The way Chris puts it is it’s ok to actually love your animals and eat them too. So part of it is just the experience of have animals around.
Our boys are not super interested anymore. They’re always like ‘oh, we didn't ask for this’,‘ all this extra work’ when we ask them to go out and fix the fencing or do X because we’re busy working or whatever, but, you know, they’ve eaten well. And I think they do know that. So ultimately it's not about making money, it's about having the lifestyle we want.
LL: What challenges have you experienced that you feel are unique to being a women in your position and how have they affected you?
SL: I’m not super strong - or physically strong that is. I don't have a lot of experience mechanically of fixing things. And there's a lot of things that break all the time. So Chris has figured out how to fix the skid steer or has ideas for fencing and he knows how to use tools more so than I do.. He’s definitely not afraid to ask anyone for help. He’ll just say, ‘I don't know how to do this, how do you do this?’ That's never been a fear of his. And i think I am a little more reluctant that way. So I always wonder, without him I don't know that I would be doing this. Or if I was it would be on an even smaller scale and I would have to learn a lot more things. Sharing the responsibilities with somebody else is definitely helpful. If I was alone doing this I’m not sure if i would. There are plenty of women that have those skills but there’s just a lot going on and I can't do it all.
LL: What advice would you give to someone interested in having a similar farming set-up as your own?
SL: Give it a try. That's pretty much it. Go for it. Maybe start small-unless you really want to take it to something bigger and you know you want to do that, but you can start small. And you can choose to do it and not do it forever. We’ve met so many people that say they used to have sheep, and maybe someday we’ll say we used to have sheep. But maybe we’ll have them forever. It just depends a lot on our health and of life situations. And don't beat yourself up on making mistakes. It's all a chance to learn.