Sabrina and Alaina Richert of rural New Haven will be a junior and senior, respectively, at Canterbury High School this fall. Outside of school hours, the sisters participate in Fort Wayne Youth Symphony — Alaina plays violin and Sabrina, the viola. They also sing with the Philharmonic Chorus.
But academics and fine arts are not all that keep the sisters occupied. Each morning, evening, weekend and holiday, the girls care for a flock of 50 sheep at their family’s 60-acre farm.
They also have been preparing to compete in the Adams County 4-H Fair, which takes place Sunday-Thursday at the Adams County 4-H Fairgrounds in Monroe.
This past winter was a busy one.
“We had 39 lambs born,” said Alaina. “Some were twins and triplets. That’s not unusual, as some lines (ewes) (have) consistently birth multiples.” Lambs remain with their mothers for two months.
Working as shepherdesses is nothing new to the Richert family. Their mother, Anita, taught them as she had been taught by her mother.
“My mother’s mother had taught her and her mother before that,” said Anita. “My daughters are fifth generation shepherdesses.”
Beginning with two Suffolk ewes and two lambs from their maternal grandfather given to them nine years ago, the sisters have established a prize-winning flock. Today they have four breeds of sheep — Friesian, Suffolk, Lincoln and Lincolnfolk — at all stages of development.
“We can track our registered Lincolns back five generations,” said Alaina.
The girls even created their own breed, the Lincolnfolk.
“Suffolks are big sheep, and Lincolns are smaller and take less feed,” said Alaina. “We crossbred them to create a sheep that would be a good size and need less feed.”
Thorin, Jr. is a Lincolnfolk born last February (named after the character in “The Lord of the Rings” novels; his sire was Thorin, Sr.). Thorin, Jr. weighs 150 pounds, compared to Poppy, a half Lincolnfolk/ half Friesian (Friesians have Roman curved noses with no wool cap on top of their heads), who also was born in February but only weighs 120 pounds. Though both animals are good-sized, they are called lambs as they are not yet 1 year old.
Another difference between breeds is the rate of speed at which their wool grows.
“It takes one year for wool to grow 3 inches on a Suffolk sheep, but only one month for wool to grow 1 inch on a Lincoln,” said Alaina.
When it’s time to shear, the girls are self-sufficient with another skill taught to them by their mother. After assisting a sheep onto a 2-foot high platform, the sisters secure the animal’s head into a metal brace to hold it still. Each girl then works on a different side of the sheep, carefully shaving and snipping around its stomach, haunches, ears and stomach.
Thirty minutes later, they release the sheep, its wool lying in a nearby basket, ready to be carded and spun. Experienced spinners with their own spinning wheel, Alaina and Sabrina are members of Fort Wayne Flax and Fleecers Spinning Guild..
The girls not only share chores, sheep, and a flip-style phone, they also share a bank account. This comes in handy as they operate a business of selling their wool through their website, www.richertranch.com.
According to Alaina, businesses use their wool to make things like Santa beards. Most of their customers, however, have individual needs.
“Spinners like our fleece because we don’t shear too soon, which makes it softer,” she said.
During summers, the sisters take their sheep to livestock shows for judging. Their Lincoln ram named Gandalf — another “The Lord of the Rings” name — was reserve Grand Champion Junior All-American in Michigan in 2013. Locally, they are members of Adams County 4-H at which they exhibit their other animals: calves, a duck, chickens, goats and rabbits. Their farm also includes cats and a dog.
So what do their classmates think of their farm activities? “We’re trying to establish an FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapter at Canterbury,” said Sabrina.
With their agricultural experience, it makes sense the girls, who were home-schooled until entering high school, would consider agriculture-related careers.
“I’d like to attend Princeton or Michigan State and major in veterinary science or music with violin performance,” Alaina said. Sabrina likes horticulture, but may consider veterinary science or music. They needn’t worry about their flock at home. Anita said she would gladly take care of it.
“I can’t let the sheep go,” she said. “It’s a family thing.”