Shepherd in southeast Minnesota finds herself in farmland limbo
A fiber artist and shepherd in Lonsdale, Minn., recently discovered her lease would be terminated at the end of the summer.
LONSDALE, Minn. ― Alejandra Sanchez is a fiber artist and shepherd behind A Woolen Forest Farm & Studio , which as of now, won't have a home after this summer.
Sanchez's farm features a herd of Angora rabbits and a mixed flock of heritage breed sheep which include Soay, Jacob and Leicester Longwool.
Sanchez said that each of the breeds has a fascinating history and grows wool with unique characteristics.
"Leicester Longwool were popular during the colonial era and were the sheep breed that George Washington had on his plantation," Sanchez said. "And Jacob sheep that are descended from the sheep that the Spanish brought over so they're very close to the Navajo Churro."
Sanchez is currently leasing the 15 acres she runs her operation on. The lease is being terminated Aug. 30, less than one year from when it began.
"It was up for renewal for another year, and they just chose not to renew, and said they want to go a different direction," she said of the current landowners.
Before the issue of lease renewal presented itself, Sanchez said the list of issues from being a tenant farmer was long.
"I feel like I became a tenant farmer because at this time it was the only way to live on the land and raise my sheep, lacking the purchasing power needed to buy land," Sanchez said. "Being a tenant farmer quickly becomes a vicious cycle. All your money goes into your farming operation because you want it to succeed, but that investment is on land you do not own, and it limits what you can put away to purchase your own land in the future."
The termination of her lease took Sanchez "totally by surprise." She said when she first moved in, she offered to buy the land if the landowners got to a point where they were looking to sell. She thought that would be in the distant future, but that her lease would continue for at least of a few more years.
"It's not like when you move to an apartment and just have a dog — you just move to another apartment with your dog. But this move is just like a total upheaval," Sanchez said. "I'm not only moving myself but I'm moving my flock of 26 sheep, and I have 10 angora rabbits that are also wool producers, and all of my wool equipment that I have."
She said because her farm is still in a startup phase she's not able to live off the farm income, and she still needs to work full-time at her other job.
"Not being the land owner severely limits the farm loans you can apply for and, as we have seen in my case, offers zero security regarding land tenure," she said. "There are also the limitations placed on the tenant farmer regarding flock size, the types of animals you can have, and how you are able to use and farm the land."
Journey to farming
Sanchez was born in Mexico, where her grandparents owned a 100-acre farm, and she moved to the United States with her parents in the late '80s
"So once we moved to the U.S., we would go back every summer and spend the entire summer on my grandparents' ranch," she said. "We had goats and chickens, and we raised our own meat and most of the things that we ate, so that was kind of part of my heritage."
With her parents being first-generation immigrants to the U.S., they motivated their children to pursue a different lifestyle than the one of their parents in Mexico.
"They were mostly just focusing on surviving, and trying to give us a better future, so they really wanted us not to farm, and to focus on our education," Sanchez said.
So she did just that. Sanchez received her undergrad from the University of California at Berkeley before she moved to Minnesota to attend law school.
"It was when I was in law school that I just really started getting that itch to get back into farming and renew my connection to my heritage," she said.
The seeds for her to get back into farming were being planted in California, when the local food movement was picking up steam and one of her professors was renowned author Michael Pollan.
"As a conservationist I'm just interested in historical and cultural traditions that I feel are being lost," Sanchez said. "That was another huge push for me to kind of pursue this part of wool farming — it wasn't just like I want to raise sheep for me, it was really more about trying to teach people these skills that I feel are being lost."
Sanchez said it was an eight year process for her to find farmland for her to operate on. She's only been shepherding for two.
"Even now I just feel like there's not much available on the market for farmland," she said. "Just trying to find a farm with an adequate amount of acreage so that you can farm sustainably — you just don't see those pop up very often."
She said the land you do see pop up is a farmhouse with one to three acres, or hundreds of acres.
"There's no real in-between," she said.
Sanchez said despite how difficult it has been for her to find and stay on farmland, she's grateful for the supportive community in southeast Minnesota that's helped her through the entire process.
"There's a really great community here, especially in the Northfield area," Sanchez said. "I'm a single woman, and I run the farm on my own, but I have a really strong, supportive community around me that anytime one of the sheep gets sick or I need help moving something, there's somebody that's willing to help, and I don't think that I could have lived here for the past year as a shepherd, on my own, without the support of the nearby community."