By Melissa Burniston
When it comes to sheep, Reyes Rich isn’t your typical Bo Peep. He and his family run the sixth generation of Ginny Ridge Farms, which includes beef cattle, broiler chickens, goats and sheep. He raises more than 100 Suffolk, Hampshire and crossbred hair sheep ewes (female sheep).
“Sheep are amazing creatures,” Reyes says. “Even though I farm many animals, I am the most passionate about sheep. They are extremely efficient, versatile and manageable animals that compliment small acreages, work profitably within many different production systems and mix well with Tennessee’s beef cattle.”
Q: Six generations is a proud tradition. What do you value most?
A: In the 1800s, Elisha Rich founded the family farm in rural Clay County, and eventually bequeathed a portion of it to his daughter, Virginia. That area became known as “Ginny Ridge,” and through the years, many generations of Rich descendants produced mostly cattle and small quantities of grains, fruits and vegetables. I have lived around farms and rural communities all of my life. The greatest thing about being on the farm and living in a small town is the sense of community and knowing your neighbors. The farm is also a wonderful place to raise children and have a family.
Q: What is it like to raise an animal that sometimes flies under the radar?
A: It is fun and enjoyable because sheep production is unusual and a novelty to most folks. Most people have a bit of a nostalgic perception of sheep. Many in the general public assume sheep are raised for wool production only when, in actuality, we also provide lean, luscious lamb that appears on dinner tables and in restaurants all over the country and around the world.
Q: How do you tackle the topic of animal welfare with those outside of the agricultural industry?
A: We have to help people understand animal welfare is the top priority for farmers. As an industry, we take the responsibility of livestock stewardship very seriously. We work hard every day to meet our animals’ needs and make good management decisions on their behalf. We have a common goal – healthy, high-quality livestock on our farms today will be healthy, high-quality food on their tables tomorrow, and that is beneficial to everyone.
Q: What advice would you give someone interested in raising sheep?
A: Read, investigate and discuss! There are many opportunities in the sheep industry. I would encourage them to explore each of those and visit with other sheep producers. These folks are very passionate about what they do and are very willing to talk about this industry. Membership in the Tennessee Sheep Producers Association is also helpful, as it provides access to many educational opportunities throughout the year – guest speakers, field days, tours, newsletters, magazine articles and more.
Sheep numbers have fluctuated over the years, but the industry is definitely on the rise. This can be attributed to farms trending toward smaller acreages and former tobacco farmers looking for options to replace that enterprise. Sheep are excellent grazers and one of the most efficient animals at converting grass to meat. Currently, a variety of breeds are being raised here, including wool and hair sheep. Both are used for meat production, but hair breeds do not require shearing. Prices for wool and lambs are at an all-time high and supply is far below demand, therefore prices should remain strong.
Q: As president of the Tennessee Sheep Producers Association and an active member of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, how important are organizations like those to develop leadership and have a support system for agriculture?
A: It’s vital. These organizations offer information, support and serve as a voice. With so many people removed from the farm, it’s important to have organizations like these to help tell our story and educate the public about the important work that we do.
Q: There is a new initiative that has gotten some buzz going. Share with me your thoughts on this twoPLUS program.
A: The twoPLUS program is an initiative of the American Sheep Industry to increase the total number of sheep in the U.S. by one of three ways – grow the size of their operation by two ewes per operation or by two ewes per 100 by 2014; increase the average birthrate per ewe to two lambs per year; or increase the harvested lamb crop by two percent, from 108 percent to 110 percent. Many of Tennessee lambs are marketed through nontraditional channels. However, it is important to maintain the viability of traditional markets and ensure that we fill the rising demand for American lamb.