Fowler sheep

TRUMAN, Minn. — For six generations and counting, the Fowler family has been farming the land, raising livestock and proudly living this way of life since 1857. A lot has happened in the farming industry since then, and for Travis and Jeanine Fowler, change has ushered in new possibilities for their livestock production and farming practices. 

Travis grew up on the family farm outside of Truman, Minn. and knew from a very early age that he wanted to be a part of the farming operation, “from preschool on” to be exact. When Travis and Jeanine got married in 1999, they began farming, and in 2000 they started their own sheep herd with six sheep. Travis has always loved raising sheep. In fact, when he was five years old, his grandfather bought him a few sheep as an investment, as he did for Travis’s brothers as well. That was all it took to get Travis into raising sheep for over 35 years, “I’ve never been able to get out of them.” 

As Travis and Jeanine expanded their family, they expanded their farm and livestock operation as well. The Fowlers have three children: Jedidiah, 17; Tessa, 15 and Tyne, 6. The sheep operation that started with six sheep in 2000 is now at 150 ewes plus a handful of rams, with the majority of their herd being polypays, along with some dorsets and Île-de-France. While that’s a big jump in the number of sheep they raise, the Fowlers have now found a herd size that they’re comfortable with, considering the amount of land and barn space they currently have.

In addition to raising sheep, the Fowlers have dairy goats that the children show for 4-H, hens, broilers, ducks, rabbits, quail and a pony. They’re also part of the Fowler family hog operation with Travis’s father where they “do the wean to finish” of 18,000 to 20,000 pigs a year. This year, Travis and Jeanine increased their rented acres from 156 to 500 acres on which they grow soybeans and corn.

While they certainly have their hands full with grain production, hogs and other livestock, Travis’s passion is raising sheep. As the demand for lamb has changed over the years, it’s allowed the meat to find resurgence in the marketplace. “A lot of new interest in eating lamb and in wool,” Travis said. Overall, “the future is pretty good for the industry,” Jeanine said. That includes a growing ethnic market coupled with the meat “becoming more common in the younger generation,” Jeanine said. While the older generation may have had a bad experience eating mutton growing up, young people today are discovering lamb and becoming consumers of this protein. There have been advances in wool production to utilize “treatments so it (wool) doesn’t shrink,” Jeanine said. Increased interest in natural textiles — and more specifically wool — in the clothing industry is a boost for sheep producers.

The Fowlers start lambing in mid-March with the first time breeding ewes lambing in late May to early June. That’s done to give extra attention that may be needed to those first time breeders in the lambing process. Having lambed for decades, not much rattles the Fowlers. At this point they know what to expect. What they were not expecting however, were eight lambs born to one ewe, and that’s exactly what happened in the spring of 2015. Even more amazing was that all the lambs survived. As far as the Fowlers can tell from searching records, on-record there has been no other ewe in the United States that has given birth to eight lambs at one time. There’s never a dull moment in raising livestock and this was a prime example of that.

In addition to raising sheep, Travis is the vice president of the Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers. Being a part of this organization for Travis is “fun to be in a group of producers from across the state.” He’s also on the Dakota Lamb Growers Cooperative board of directors. He gets to “meet a lot of people on that board that I wouldn’t have met.” They have the opportunity to learn from each other and brainstorm ways to make the industry stronger. 

As with anything in farming, there are ups and downs, good years and bad years. But for the Fowlers, each year has been an opportunity to do what they love, and live the farming way of life that has been part of their heritage for 161 years and counting.