Travelers settle in MN with Icelandic sheep

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. -- There are farms all over central Minnesota, but perhaps none operated by as unlikely farmers as a stretch of acreage east of Little Falls on Minnesota Highway 27.

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Jared Strand checks on one of the Icelandic sheep he and his wife Lydia raise on a farm east of Little Falls. The sheep are sheared twice a year.

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. -- There are farms all over central Minnesota, but perhaps none operated by as unlikely farmers as a stretch of acreage east of Little Falls on Minnesota Highway 27.

This is where Jared and Lydia Strand have landed after an odyssey of more than 10 years that saw them go from metropolitan Minnesota to a West Coast education in sustainable agriculture and back.

The Strands returned from Oregon late last fall, with little in their bank accounts beyond what it took to finance the trip. The caravan included Jared driving one vehicle filled with chickens and pulling a trailer with their belongings. A few days later, Lydia followed a livestock hauler that had their 38 sheep and six pigs. She and her 16-year-old daughter had two dogs and six cats in their Volkswagen van.

Their destination was a farm they found on Craigslist but had never seen. They arrived in time for one of the worst winters in decades, but Lydia's Flock, as her business is called, has thrived ever since.

"I was a wreck when we got here," says Lydia Strand, 39, who grew up in Coon Rapids and married Jared, 44, who is from Maplewood, in 2001. "It was Dec. 2, and we'd just driven most of the way through a storm with no snow tires, driving on mountain passes at 20 miles an hour, and the heater not working. I got out of the van, and I was bawling. We spent our entire savings to move with our animals back to Minnesota, but now I don't regret it one bit."


The Strands primarily raise registered Icelandic sheep. They shear them twice a year for their wool, which is processed in a mill in Fosston, Minn., and returned to Lydia, who sells the skeins, pieces of loosely wound yarn, for as much as $38 each to serious knitters. Some of the sheep are culled for meat, as are some of the 42 egg-producing chickens.

They have plans to turn the farm, which they're renting for $675 a month, into a community-supported agriculture venture. But the centerpiece, Lydia says, always will be the sheep.

Pacific Northwest and back

The story starts about a decade ago when they moved to suburban Seattle looking for a "fresh start."

Jared worked as a mechanic, and Lydia worked for a funeral home and cemetery. Their lives changed when they became part of an urban farm co-op.

"Seattle is a progressive community," Lydia says. "It's common to see community gardens, even in the green spaces between the boulevard and homes or buildings."

The Strands began to soak up agricultural education like a sponge, raising chickens on a quarter-acre property in Tukwilla, Wash. After Lydia began helping at a goat and sheep rescue, she took on her own flock. It eventually got so big they had to move some from yard to yard, wherever they could find friends with some extra space.

"At that point, we decided we wanted to try farming," Jared says. "The challenge was coming up with a place we could afford that would make it possible."


After a fruitless search, they took jobs managing an Oregon farm. It took less than six months to realize there was a reason the dairy owner was on her third set of caretakers in as many years.

"The owner was from San Francisco and had no idea about agriculture other than she wanted to own a farm," Jared says.

The Strands decided to get out, so a year ago they chose to return to Minnesota.

Passionate farmers

Allen Selinski grew up with a brother and three sisters on the farm east of Little Falls. His mother lived there until she died two years ago.

"It's a sacred place for me," says Selinski, who lives in Minneapolis. "The barn and sheds weren't being used, and I wanted them to be useful to someone. So, I asked around, looking for a renter."

Most of the farm's 200 acres are rented to a nearby corn farmer. There are about 10 acres of pasture and grassland, though. After one false start, he put the farm on Craigslist -- and got more than 250 responses from all over the nation.

"It was then I realized there's a big demand for a hobby farm and I thought I could get someone to live there and we could work together to maintain the property," Selinski says. "I discovered a whole world in other parts of the state and country where farmers are retiring and, instead of selling for the highest price, are renting their land to people who have a passion for agriculture."


Despite other offers for more money, he elected to rent to the Strands, whom he only knew by phone and email. Their sincerity came through.

"I was looking for the people who were most determined, who were going to turn it into a working farm again," Selinski says. "I couldn't ask for better renters.

"They're making it possible to keep the land in the family and return it to what it once was -- a working farm. I just try to stay out of their way and let their passion show."

Good wool, bigger ideas

It would've been a lot easier to move to Minnesota without all their sheep. People ask why they didn't sell their flock and buy new animals here.

"Ours are pulled from some of the best genetic lines in North America," Jared says. He works at Brandl Motors to make it possible for the family to pursue the wool business. "We also have a personal attachment to a lot of them."

Lydia can call them by name. She's there when they're born and interacts with them almost as pets. The Strands breed for temperament as well as fleece quality. The ones that don't meet the standard are butchered on the farm.

Out of respect for the animals, and to ensure it's done as humanely as possible, the Strands always are on hand for that. But, since the meat isn't processed through a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility, local markets can't sell it. It is available, along with the wool, through her website.


In the first year, they harvested 75 pounds of wool. After processing at Northern Woolen Mills, it returned about 45 pounds or 110 skeins of yarn.

"It's obvious that she really loves her animals. You can tell by the quality of her wool. ... We get wool from all over the country, and hers is some of the best," says Stephanie Andersen, who owns the mill -- which churns out more than 70 pounds of wool per day, five days a week, all year long.

The sheep are the primary focus of the farm, but they won't be everything.

"We're trying to be gentle to the earth," Lydia says. "When animals aren't allowed to graze or when dairy cows never see the outside of a barn, that's not good for the animals, and it's not good for us. There's a reason milk is $3 a gallon. It would be $7 if the farmer is going to earn a decent wage and the animals are going to live properly."

The Strands want to add bees in the spring to produce honey and, at least in small part, offset those being killed by corn and soybean pesticides. They want to plant an apple orchard and grow maples for syrup. They want to sell breeding stock and teach others interested in raising sheep.

Next year, they're also going to grow a test plot of vegetables to determine how much they can produce. In 2016, they want to sell shares in their CSA. Each share, for example, would yield 20 weeks of produce, eggs and a lamb at the end of the season.

"The idea is you'd pay ahead of time and take the risk/reward with us," Lydia says. "It wouldn't be the answer to everything, but it would help people eat local and know where their food is coming from."

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