BY LORI MCDONALD | FOR THE REPUBLIC
When a rural Seymour man is not busy making sure Amazon customers get their orders, he spends time with his wife raising sheep to help feed their small part of the world.
Although Eric and Jennifer Nieman raise sheep to sell meat at local farm markets, it’s about so much more than making money.
“It’s about sustainable farming, and if you give to the ground, it’s going to give back,” Jennifer said. “It’s the same thing with the ‘girls.’ If we give to them, they’ll give back.”
They raise Katahdin sheep, a breed of hair sheep developed in Maine in the 1970s and ’80s and named after Mount Katahdin in the north central part of that state. Hair sheep do not produce wool, so they don’t need to be sheared.
Besides farming, Eric also works in the maintenance department at Amazon near Charlestown, where he maintains about 13 miles of conveyors.
“Working outside of the farm is something I’m used to doing,” he said. “With our small acreage, it’s necessary to survive, but someday, I’d like to do farming full time.”
The Niemans own Redemption Farms Katahdins, located on land that has been in Eric’s family for three generations.
The Niemans’ farm, which was owned by the late Wilbur and Irene Claycamp Nieman, is southwest of Seymour.
Eric believes his grandfather, William Nieman, started the farm.
“My dad bought it when he was in his late 20s, and then he married my mom, Irene,” he said. “He passed this last June and retired several years ago. All I know is that I’d be lost if I didn’t have the farm because it’s in my blood.”
Eric’s parents operated a dairy farm for about 30 years, and he remembers his mother milking the cows.
“They won several awards for milk production, and it’s mostly been a livestock farm for all three generations,” he said. “Farming is something I love, and even with its trials, there’s nothing quite like sitting on a nice tractor and feeling the breeze.”
The hardest time on the farm, however, is when the weather is really cold, like it has been lately.
The Niemans are in the process of updating some watering systems to help with that.
“The system is not quite there yet, so when it’s this cold, we have to go out and bust up ice a few times a day so the animals will have the water they need,” Eric said. “You learn to plan ahead so that hopefully, any problems that come up aren’t too hard to take care of.”
The Niemans were married in 2015 and decided to raise sheep because Jennifer had raised them in the past.
For the small amount of acreage they have, it works out pretty well.
“I was born in California, and my whole family is from Santa Cruz, but I grew up in Utah, Oregon and Arizona,” Jennifer said. “To see what my husband’s heritage is here, I’m just kind of in awe of that because I don’t have that.”
She said the Katahdins are very good, and the ewes show a strong, protective mothering instinct. The ones who are exceptional at mothering are kept in the herd for breeding.
Katahdins have hair similar to that of a dog, with some being soft and curly, while others can be coarse and wiry. The sheep can be different colors, too.
“We go all over to get our animals, and one of our rams came from Iowa, two came from Missouri and one was local from Salem,” Jennifer said. “Some we’ve raised ourselves and decided to keep.”
There is a lambing period three times a year, and the Niemans sell rams and ewes for breeding stock and lambs for 4-H’ers.
“Right now, we have a bottle-fed lamb named Babs, who is around a month old,” Jennifer said. “Her mama had twins, and for some reason, she didn’t develop milk on both sides. We checked her for mastitis, but she didn’t have that.”
Bottle-fed babies are kind of needy, and when they’re first born, they need to be fed six times a day.
“Then it goes down to four times, then three and then from that, we start weaning them,” Jennifer said. “The first thing we check when a mama rejects her babies is for sharp teeth, in which case we’ll file them down just a little bit, which doesn’t hurt them. Another reason is if there’s something not quite right with the baby because the mother knows. It’s not very common for these sheep to reject their babies, though.”
The Niemans have three different groups of sheep they manage at the same time. The first already has had babies and won’t have another set of babies until this time next year because they only breed a ewe once a year. That gives each ewe a good opportunity to recover and rest from having babies.
Next, they have older male ram lambs, which will be sold as adults in the spring, and then there are the girls. They are either yearling or becoming yearling or they are mamas with babies, Jennifer said.
“A lot of people around here raise goats, but sheep are way easier,” Jennifer said. “This particular breed is very parasite resistant, and the program we have for grazing, combined with their resistance, makes them really easy to raise. Katahdins are great moms. They are good for their meat production, and they are hair sheep, so their hair falls out, like a dog sheds in the summertime, which is really cool.”
She said Katahdins have an advantage over some other breeds of sheep.
“The nice thing about that is the lanolin,” Jennifer said. “All sheep have lanolin, which is an oily substance that’s in our lotions and other products, and that lanolin flavors the meat.”
The Katahdins’ coat isn’t as thick as wool, so when it falls out, it creates a milder meat because there is less lanolin, she said.
The Niemans could have around 300 to 350 head on their farm, but right now, they are at around 100 because they want to perfect things before taking it to another level.
“We do plan on growing our production to 300 or 350 eventually, but it’s really careful management,” Jennifer said. “It’s not about the business. It’s really about the animals’ welfare and the farm. That’s what is important to us.
“Everything we buy is either verified non-genetically modified organisms or verified organic,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing for people to know where their food is coming from and how the food got to their table. Our parents and grandparents raised and grew their own food and spent hours gathering and canning together, so we are very blessed to be able to do that here on our farm.”
The Niemans also have persimmon trees, eggs and almonds.
“It’s such a peaceful feeling to know that if you take care of the ground, it’s going to take care of you,” Jennifer said.
The couple have sold their products at farmers markets in Columbus and Greensburg and currently are in the process of putting their products in Bloomingfoods and a little grocery store called Under the Sun, located in Greenwood and Indianapolis.
“Under the Sun is a really neat thing, and they help eliminate food deserts, which are poverty-stricken areas, like in Indianapolis, where people can’t afford to pay for food,” Jennifer said. “They have affordable, fresh produce from local farmers, and they bring in organics and good quality staple foods. I just love that mission, and to know we are helping out by having our lamb in their store just makes me feel really good.”