Seeder: Mike and Vicky Atherton, Atherton Farm
The Farm: Across the Willamette Valley, Mike has access to roughly 5,000 acres of grazing land on which he practices a rotational grazing service with his Hampshire-North Country cross sheep in cooperation with local hay farmers.
What They Seed: Atherton focuses on pasture raising Hampshire-North Country cross sheep all over the Willamette Valley. Mike has lamb grazing on several different properties and the herds are protected by Great Pyrenees dogs.
Where You Can Find Them
Farmers Market: Beaverton (Saturday) – sold by Lonely Lane Farm
Their Story: We had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with one of the most well known sheep farmers in the Pacific Northwest. Mike Atherton has been raising sheep for 35 years and is extremely passionate about his animals and farming methods.
Mike started farming in 1976 just south of Corvallis, Oregon, growing organic vegetables. That was a time when it was almost everyone was using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and organic was far from the norm. Mike was living on a piece of land between a ranch and a cornfield, experimenting with growing great vegetables. One afternoon in 1979, he arrived home to realize that his gardens had been destroyed: there were cow tracks running straight through his crops and into the cornfield. He contemplated how he was going to deal with the fact his entire season’s crop had been destroyed in just one day. Each of his neighbors were also examining the damage to their respective fences and cornfield. Mike went over to chat with the rancher and walked away with a deal to purchase 200 ewes at $75/head. The second part of the deal was that the rancher would show Mike his ways of raising lamb.
From 1979 to 1980 Mike traveled to Switzerland to work on a biodynamic farm while his neighbor watched his ewes. By the time he returned home the value of the ewes he had purchased at $75 had plunged to $12/head. That was his first lesson on how the sheep market was: an up and down roller coaster that could never be predicted. Even still, Mike decided to go through with raising sheep. During our visit, Mike was sure to express to us that he is not a “quitter”. He emphasized that as a farmer there are plenty of opportunities to quit, but if you love what you do, that option doesn’t exist.
Mike has been raising sheep for the greater part of 35 years in the Willamette Valley and still loves it just as much as the day he started. He currently raises about 5,000 head of sheep per year. His estimated loss is about 0.05%. This is incredible considering he started at a 10% loss per year. Mike explained to us that there are two main factors that attribute to loss of a sheep herd: predators and parasites. But with effective fencing, a barn owl project to keep the population of parasite-carrying rodents down, Great Pyrenees to watch the herds and routine shots, Mike has got the art of shepherding figured out!