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Rebellion Farm lends a helping hand to a rare breed of sheep

For the Love of Lambs

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It takes just 20 minutes to get there, yet it seems worlds away. Due west of Charleston, beyond West Ashley's sprawl, past Fishnet Seafood and Dodge's fried chicken, sits Rebellion Farm.

An unmarked gravel road takes you past a curtain of towering pines. Dark shadows scamper through the woodland to your right: a cluster of heritage hogs race to the front gate to say hello and grunt for treats. By the open barn, next to the hoop house full of microgreens, you'll hear an entirely different chorus of animals: the plaintive bellows of Rebellion's newest residents — St. Croix white-haired sheep.

A small herd of roughly 15, the sheep emerge from the forest to bleat their greetings. Baby lambs peek out from behind the long legs of their mothers. All keep a safe distance from the thin wire of electrified fence. These are not the stereotypical curly, fat, woolly sheep of childhood storybooks. They are lean, elegant, and gentle. With pristine smooth white hair, they are beautiful to behold. They're also endangered. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) names the St. Croix on their Conservation Priority List as numbering less than 1,000 in the United States and less than 5,000 worldwide.

"If you were trying to grow lambs commercially, you would never grow the St. Croix," explains Jeff Allen, owner of Rebellion Farm and the man who purchased a handful of the sheep from his friend Will Altman of Righteous Ranch in Effingham, S.C. Allen is trying to grow the herd.

Rebellion Farm was once also home to heritage hogs, like this woolly beast - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Rebellion Farm was once also home to heritage hogs, like this woolly beast

Allen unplugs the fence and steps over it, a sackful of corn kernels in one arm and bale of hay in another. Twigs snap underfoot as he cuts a path to the center of the fenced forest. He walks past grass fronds and bushes of sweet bay (which the sheep have devoured), towards a stretch of blue tenting hoisted for shelter. The sheep trot gracefully after him, bounding through the forest like deer. Allen slings the corn into a wooden trough. The sheep jockey for position, nudging aside the younger ones who determinedly manage to weasel their way beneath taller legs to access the feast. The forest grows quiet, apart from the steady, muffled rumble of crunching kernels.

"Commercial farmers prefer hybridized sheep, bred for disease resistance, lack of shearing, and a carcass that will yield the most meat for the least amount of input feed," Allen explains as he scratches the head of a ram (a hornless breed) who appears to appreciate Allen's fatherly attention. "There's things like feed conversion ratio that are important in those equations. But St. Croix sheep weren't adapted for that.

"St. Croix whites came from West Africa with the slave trade just like the old varieties of rice did," continues Allen, who has a master's degree in history with an emphasis on African-American culinary contributions. "The sheep were likely brought through the Saharan trade in Persia, probably descendants of the fat-tailed sheep from Baghdad way back when. They were grown on Caribbean islands as early as the 1600s, and because of that they adapted to warm climates, so they don't get parasites and are resistant to foot rot and other kinds of ailments that plague English sheep from the cold, dreary, wet isles of Britain who don't particularly do well here in our climate."

He pauses, then says with a wry chuckle, "Sort of like the British people that showed up here."

Agrarian Think-Tank

For Allen, Rebellion's mission is to help keep the breed going where others have lost interest. His interest is not commercial. Allen himself is not a farmer, per se. He would be the first to tell you that. He has a day job, traveling extensively for an educational technology company that helps improve public schools. Farming demands constant attention, and he doesn't have the time for that. Instead, Allen conceived Rebellion as a host farm, or "incubator" as he calls it, a place for people who want to get into farming but don't have the capital or land or know-how — a safe place to try, to fail, to gain experience, to move on.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Rebellion is for people like Jen Wassum, a University of Virginia grad whom Allen met at the South Carolina New and Beginning Farmers Program, a series of workshops offered by Clemson to address the aging out of farmers. As Wassum remembers it, "Jeff and I discussed the Jeffersonian way of life over High Lifes, and he sold me on the spirit of Rebellion. I was looking for a farm, and he was looking for a farmer." Together they plotted (pun unavoidable) to grow the best produce in the Lowcountry, with Wassum running the farm and Allen assisting as often as he could. But it was really Wassum's show. Allen guaranteed her a minimum salary to mitigate her risk and introduced her to chefs like Mike Lata and Kevin Johnson, who have radars for local, boutique, high-quality produce.

Getting Rebellion off the ground was not easy. Allen and Wassum started with dirt they couldn't stick a shovel in. They started with no well, no electricity, no roads, no ditches, no fences, just pine trees and woods and swamp. Allen got out there and did what any self-professed country boy loves to do: rip shit up with his tractor, get stuck in the mud, pull up stumps, light fires, or as he termed it "scrabble the land" — all necessary steps in clearing the timbered pine acres that were to become Rebellion Farm. Then came early mornings and weekends of tilling fields. Allen spread compost, planted cover crops, and established fences to keep the deer out (not an easy proposition). Wassum threw herself into farming, facing acidic soil and flooding. "We had to learn what crops the ground was able to support," says Wassum looking back at her years at Rebellion. "I learned, through sweat and dirt and bugs and diseases, that the food served in this town comes at a price that cannot be felt by reading a menu."

"It was just a series of failures," says Allen. "It was mucky and muddy and the plants were all drowning. One after another you just get your ass kicked. But that's how you learn and how you grow. Because you get up every time and you figure out how to not let that happen again and you go back after it."

Rebellion started with produce, but things expanded organically. Holy City Hogs occupied a stretch of land for a time, and the St. Croix sheep are Allen's latest pet project in a series of interesting ventures. There's the composting project: The land's rich soil is rife with the affronting waft of decaying fish carcasses regularly donated by local fisherman Mark Marhefka. There's the neighbor's mobile chicken coop destined for rotation in the fields as natural fertilizer. And the bee hives sitting under the barn. And Donna Hardy's field of antebellum crops: Sea Island cotton, Carolina Gold rice, and Ossabaw indigo featured in the last issue of Dirt. And new farmer Lindsey Barrow's project to launch a mobile produce truck called Lowcountry Street Grocery.

In other words, Rebellion has grown into a community of like-minded agrarians, people genuinely interested in experimenting, helping each other, and sharing ideas. The St. Croix sheep are just the latest chapter in a growing novel of agrarian discourse.

Life Cycles

On a day in late winter, Allen noticed that one of the sheep appeared lethargic and wobbly, and wasn't keeping up with the herd. He fed it a few sweet bay leaves, rubbed its neck, ran his hands over its abdomen, and felt the tiny kicks of a growing lamb within. With sub-freezing weather expected, his neighbors Aaron and Ivy Ambercrombie volunteered to move the pregnant ewe into the comfort of one of their horse stalls, where they kept an eye on the expectant mama for days. Days became weeks and Allen and the Ambercrombies began to think what appeared to be imminent birth may just be a case of indigestion. But sure enough, a lamb was born.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

The herd is growing steadily. Yet it is not without its setbacks. Allen lost a healthy sheep early on when it got tangled up in a fence. Then there was the mysterious death of a seemingly healthy young lamb. And most recently, the tragic trampling of a lamb by its distressed mother working to free herself from entanglement in a fence. Bit by bit, through research and conversations with other growers, Allen works to avoid tragedy. Yet he is hardened to the grim realities of death on a farm. He knows only too well by now the solemn march of carrying the occasional dead animal over to the compost heap, yet he views death as an unavoidable, even essential, part of a larger equation, and is quick to point out that the passing of winter begets the birth of spring. So too, in his compost pile do decomposing fish carcasses or fated lambs provide the nitrogen necessary to break down matter into rich soil to spread over the fields to grow the crops that will feed our community. That's the beauty, and complexity, of good dirt. If you have time, he'll give you an earful of Alpha and Omega references and Jungian theories of alchemical cycles. For Allen, the farm is loaded with life lessons.

It seems a shame, given the fact that St. Croix meat is praised for its lean yet tender, sweetly aromatic and mild taste, that Allen will not sell to local chefs. Yet he hopes to give the occasional sheep to friends and to sell sheep to interested growers, thereby contributing to the culinary community at large, a community to which he feels indebted.

As for the wool, one would imagine local textile artisans vying for heritage fleece, but Allen says it's not that simple. St. Croix sheep grow an extra layer of undercoat during the winter, and unlike most sheep, they shed their fur in summer, making them particularly adapted for hot climates but not bred as a wool commodity. With such a small flock, sheering is not cost effective.

For Allen the purpose, for now, is simply to grow the herd, to learn from mistakes, and to get it right. His affection for the breed is not surprising, given his graduate studies in race and foodways. He feels a particular affinity for, in his words, "the plight of the subaltern" (and if that sends you running to your Thesaurus, you're in good company). Translated, it means, roughly, rooting for the underdog. Rebellion itself is named for the first major slave uprising in the Colonies: the Stono Rebellion of 1739, part of which took place on this very property. The slaves, though initially successful, were hunted down and killed. But not forgotten. So Rebellion takes on multifaceted meanings: rebellion against exploitation, rebellion against large-scale commercial agriculture, rebellion against for-profit obsessions.

Allen says you can learn a lot from facing the dirt. "One lesson is that nobody's soil is your soil. The things that work on our farm, you could go five miles down the road and they wouldn't work there. You have to learn your place. What the land wants to do. That's part of the fun and the toil. I think that's the overriding lesson I've learned from farming: that it's place specific," he says. "All the stuff you read in books, you can throw out the window about Day Two. You just have to do it for yourself. You fail, and you learn through failure. So to me, the symbol of that sort of perseverance that we see in the archetypal farmer, that hard, robust perseverance, you develop and shelter a temperance for that. I think that's why if you meet old farmers, they don't talk a lot, they don't brag, they're quiet, you know, they're old souls. They'll watch before they speak, very much because they've got their asses kicked over and over again their whole life, and they've learned respect. I call that the dirt. The dirt is inside of you." 

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