It all started with one sheep named Bucky.
Carol Wagner wanted to own a sheep, wash its wool, spin its wooland knit the yarn into a sweater.
'It's kind of a goofy thing,' she said, 'but you can get three sweaters or more out of one sheep.'
So in 1985, Carol and her husband, Paul, got Bucky. Fast forward more than 30 years, and today the Wagners have a flock of around 400 sheep, including around 200 adults (the females are ewes; the males are rams; and any youngster younger than a year is a lamb), making them the owners of the largest registered flock in North America.
'One sheep just led to another,' said Carol Wagner, explaining the proliferation of sheep.
Bucky was a ram, and as Carol Wagner observed, 'You can't have rams without ladies, so we got five to start out with … just generic sheep, because I didn't know anything about sheep or wool. I just knew it was something I wanted to do,' she said.
Prior to delving into sheep full-time, Carol was a German teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay.
After reading an article in a magazine devoted to wool spinning about the Coopworth breed of sheep, Carol had an epiphany.
'I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I have to have these sheep,'' she said.
The Coopworth breed was developed in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s. 'They were developed based on a concept of improving sheep production … more lambs, better mothers, better wool,' Carol Wagner explained. 'In the breeding process, they were selected according to a variety of criteria, including mothering abilities, how well the lambs grew — both while they were with the mothers and after they left the mothers and were eating on their own.'
In other words, these sheep were bred to be the best.
Her husband, Paul, was completely on board with getting the Coopworth
breed. 'He said he didn't care, I could have any breed I wanted as long as he got some lamb to eat,' Carol Wagner recalled, adding that the Coopworth breed has a very mild flavor, and consequently at least three lamb meals a week appear on the Wagner table.Eventually, the Wagners went into sheep production full-time, moving to Paul Wagner's family homestead in rural Valders. Half of their flock resides in Clintonville, since the Wagners didn't have enough land for grazing on their property. According to the Wagners, sheep are shy, but curious, animals. They are not particularly fond of being petted; on the other hand, they don't kick, spit or butt, at least not in the Wagner flock.
'If they don't behave, we don't keep them,' Carol Wagner said. 'We don't want an aggressive animal. We have so many people who come to look at them that if we had an animal that was dangerous, that would not be a good thing.'
Visitors, who especially come during the lambing season in March and April, are very curious about the Wagners' sheep business. Paul Wagner enjoys visitors and taking the opportunity to educate the public about another aspect of farming in America's Dairyland.
'We are trying to educate the public that there is more to agriculture than milking cows and growing corn,' Paul Wagner said. 'We are trying to show that there is a way of making a living with small-scale agriculture. You don't have to have 5,000 acres and 5,000 cows.'
The Wagners run a total of about 100 acres, some owned and some rented. They do not plant anything.
'I take pretty much what Mother Nature gives me,' Paul Wagner said. 'In my opinion, there are two philosophies on food production. One, you take what Mother Nature has to offer and you make it work. The other is you take what Mother Nature has to offer and change it into what you want. I think it's more the Native American approach of taking what Mother Nature has to offer and make it work.'
Consequently, the Wagners' flock is almost entirely grass-fed, with a few exceptions.
'We try to stay away from grain as much as possible,' Paul Wagner said.
The Wagners said sheep provide many business possibilities.
'That's the great thing about sheep,' Carol Wagner said. 'The sheep is probably the oldest domestic animal. You have lambs, so you can have food; you shear them, so you get wool for clothing; you get milk, with which you can make cheese. You also get the sheep skins. So, there are four things that we can do and four products that we can get out of a sheep.'
And the Wagners do. Their woolen mill, constructed in 1997, houses the fiber-processing aspect of their business. They produce vibrantly dyed and unique roving, the basis for the spun yarn, as well as offer custom carding services, quilts and batts, raw wool and sheepskins.
They also sell yarn and wool products as well as a variety of meat products out of their Woolen Mill storefront. In addition, they go to the Green Bay Farmers' Market and many events throughout the Midwest selling and demonstrating the products of their — and their sheep's — labor. Paul and Carol readily admit they never envisioned their current operation when they bought 'good, old Bucky' more than 30 years ago. But they both enjoy what their business has developed into. 'They are just so much fun … they jump and they play,' Carol Wagner said. 'You can't be sad if you're watching a lamb.' Hidden Valley Farm & Woolen Mill is at 14804 Newton Road, Valders. Their hours of operation are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday.
YI-CHIN LEE/USA TODAY NETWORKWISCONSIN
Carol and Paul Wagner have been operating the Hidden Valley Farm and Woolen Mill in Valders since 1985. They own the largest registered sheep flock in North America.