Reinventing as a Farmer: The Sheep Farmer

The Sheep Farmer: Rebecca Denhoff, Buchanan, Virginia.

By Jenny Rough
Photograph: Joel Sternfeld

For Denhoff, who was born and raised near Virginia Beach, contact with farm animals was limited to stuffed toys and Little Bo Peep books—until she visited a great aunt who lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Awestruck by the beauty of the land, she vowed she’d live in a place like that one day. She was five years old at the time. 

Three decades later, she moved to the area with her husband, a Boston lawyer. By day she worked as a registered nurse, eventually becoming a hospital administrator, and at night she read sheep-care books. Intent on buying a farm, she bolstered her savings with profitable real estate investments. 

One day she adopted two orphaned lambs and bottle-fed them for eight weeks. They lived indoors, diapered, until she moved them onto the couple’s two-acre property. That was the start of her flock, which grew from year to year. “I was happy as a flea, but my husband was not,” she says. Then some farmland she’d long been eyeing became available, and she bought it that day. When she broke the news to her husband after the fact, he gave her a choice: him or the farm. Denhoff didn’t hesitate. “The farm,” she said. “If I give this up, my spirit will slowly die.”

After the divorce, Denhoff fixed up Solitude Farm, a 100-acre plot with no running water or electricity. She spent $250,000 on a well, a septic tank, fencing and a barn. In 1996 she moved her 12 sheep onto the land, along with a trailer that became her new home. Still working as a nurse, Denhoff gave the animals shots and wasn’t afraid to “sew things up,” she says. Nearby veterinarians showed her how to deliver and revive lambs and push back prolapsed sheep uteruses.

To prevent coyotes and wolves from threatening her flock, she acquired a Maremma, a dog bred to guard sheep. But then some local men vandalized her property, destroying the solar chargers that powered her electric fence. “They wanted to run me out of here. They’d never seen a woman driving a tractor before,” she says with a laugh. “But I had it out with them, and now we get along. When their animals need a vet, they call me first.” 

Today, Solitude Farm is home to 60 Leicester Longwool sheep, 20 head of cattle and a dozen chickens. Denhoff hired a part-time worker and replaced the trailer with a house, which also brings in income as a retreat for women. She continues to work the night shift as a nurse (“for benefits”) and pulls in $30,000 annually from meat, wool and the retreat (solitudefarmretreat.com). But sheep are Denhoff’s passion. During the lambing season, beginning every December, she always has a couple of orphaned lambs running around her house in diapers. “They’re clean, and they smell good. They’re easier than puppies,” she says. “Sheep are peaceful and calming. They’re the Zen of animals.”

Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of More under the title FIELDS OF DREAMS.

What’s your reaction?

Comments

Post new comment

Click to add a comment