The first view you get is the historic barn which was relocated in the 1920s piece by piece from Milwaukee using horses and wagons. The barn used to hold the family’s herd of Guernseys until 1996 when the herd was dispersed.
The farm, owned by several generations of the Riemer family back in 1914, was originally about 150 acres but was subdivided when the dairy cows vacated. Left with eight acres and a desire to have their children involved in agriculture, Kevin and his wife, Lorrie, decided to try raising sheep.
The plan worked and the family has been raising their flock since 2008 when they bought their first two ewes.
“Sheep were a way that we could keep our family connected to agriculture and to the farm,” explained Lorrie.
They have learned a lot along the way regarding feeding and genetics but the goal of staying connected to agriculture has remained the focus.
Kevin shared, “I say this often and the kids roll their eyes, but I didn’t get sheep with the intention of raising champion sheep, I got them with the intent to raise champion kids.”
Kevin and Lorrie have five children: Sarah, Josh, Tim, Paul and Hannah. Each family member has a responsibility and role with the flock.
Like many youth exhibitors across the state, the Riemer family enjoys showing their animals at competitions not only in Wisconsin but across the Midwest. The family has shown at their local county and state fair, but also at shows in Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kentucky and Kansas.
When asked about what their favorite show was, they all agreed that the Wisconsin State Fair was the most competitive and exciting.
All the kids have shown sheep at one point with Hannah still showing as a youth exhibitor. The three boys are the most involved and do the most managing with the flock.
As the oldest, Sarah sees herself as the overall supporter.
“I am not the best showman but do my best to support my siblings and the sheep industry overall,” she said.
Josh does a lot of marketing, logistics and genetics research for the family’s show sheep.
“We created Ridgeview Show Lambs to market our lambs,” said Josh. “When you buy from us, we will be there to mentor you if you want that.”
Josh also serves as the president of the Wisconsin Club Lamb Association.
Tim was unanimously voted the workhorse of the family.
“He’s always working and he’s willing to do anything,” said Sarah. “He just wants the job done.”
Their youngest brother, Paul, was deemed the best showman by his siblings. He ‘humbly’ agreed that this is true.
As the official youngest member of the family, Hannah is the only one still showing at youth shows. She also sews blankets and leg wraps for the sheep.
The family is proud of the genetics they have built through the years within the flock. Kevin notes that because so many people have helped and continue to help them, they try to be mentors for other exhibitors.
Collectively the family agreed the biggest reward is seeing lambs they sold to exhibitors do well in shows across the state.
“We work together fairly well most of the time,” Sarah laughed.
The family gets to as many sheep shows as possible during the season. This year there were 10 shows in the lineup.
“When we show sheep it’s a team effort. We aren’t cheering on one member of the family in a sport. We are the team.”
Eating Local Lamb
According to AmericanLamb.com, more than 50% of lamb consumed in the U.S. travels upward of 10,000 miles from New Zealand and Australia to make it to a dinner plate. Imported lamb takes at least 30 days to get to America.
It’s easy to agree that American lamb is a fresher option, but many consumers don’t know how to find locally-raised lamb products. As the national check-off program for the sheep industry, the American Lamb Board tries to help by leveraging a search opportunity for local opportunities on its website.
At the Riemer Farm, Tim manages meat sales and the logistics that go with it. Their customers are mainly ones who found them through word of mouth.
“We don’t do a lot of meat sales just because we don’t have the quantity of lambs, but we have a waiting list,” shared Tim.
Processing meat has also been a challenge for the livestock sector, sheep included.
One of the processing plants closest to the Riemers recently stopped production which has given one less option for an already small list of processors who offer custom butchering.
“We have the interest in our meat, and we could grow it if we wanted to,” said Tim. “But right now, we just want to focus on the show animals and build that.”
Make it with Wool
While wool is a natural product from sheep, there isn’t a high demand for the product.
“The general wool market is extremely saturated,” said Kevin. “While people do value high-end, specialty and colored fibers, there is not much of a market for just plain commercial wool.”
Kevin noted that since the U.S. Military has gone back to wool dress uniforms, they are once again a leading purchaser. However, the supply remains much higher than the demand creating little value for most wool.
To help share the expansive possibilities with wool, Lorrie is the state director for the Wisconsin Make it With Wool contest which takes place annually at the Sheep and Wool Festival in Jefferson. This contest is a national contest hosted in several states.
“I like helping with the program because it helps showcase the other side of our industry – wool and fiber,” said Lorrie. “The entire purpose of the program is to create exposure to the versatility of wool products in the fiber space.”
According to the competition webpage, contestants must sew, knit or crochet their garments and they must be made from at least 60% wool fabric or yarn. Contestants are divided into adult and multiple youth age divisions with categories for Garments, Novelty, Wearable Accessory and Made for Others.
The state contest is supported by several local agricultural groups, including Jefferson County Farm Bureau. These supporters make it possible to provide a luncheon and prizes for the event which took place on Sept. 9 during the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival.
The festival is one of the largest in the country bringing in visitors from across the U.S. but also other countries. The event focuses on all facets of the sheep and wool community. Not only are there sheep showing competitions but also stock dog competitions and a Walk & Knit & Walk & Crochet Challenge Relay.
You can also visit the hall of breeds to learn more about the variety of sheep and take part in a shearing demonstration or the lambing area. Fiber art classes are available to show how to do a variety of things with wool.
“The festival brings together every aspect of our community,” explained Lorrie. “Isn’t that what’s important? Coming together to share the story of what we do?”
The event takes place each year during the second weekend of September. Information can be found by visiting wisconsinsheepandwoolfestival.com.
Story and photos by Amy Eckelberg. Originally appeared in the October | November 2023 Rural Route.