Meat sheep farmer Chris Wilson's “love of the land” and her flock are evident from the natural and humane agricultural methods employed on her 50-acre farm nestled in the tranquil hills of Northeast Tennessee.
Wilson runs Clover Creek Farm in Jonesborough with the help of Ray, her husband of 42 years, and daughter, Sarah, who lives “about 2 miles up the road.” According to Wilson, the operation mostly involves raising, harvesting and marketing Katahdin/Dorper cross hair sheep, a breed of sheep “that is only for meat.”
“They actually have hair like a dog and shed once a year,” Wilson explained.
Since the flock is made up of nearly 300 hair sheep (some to be sold as breeding stock), including “ewes and lambs and rams,” it kind of has to be a family operation, Wilson explained. “My daughter has a 34-acre farm nearby, which we kind of combined them. I use her farm for hay and this one just for pasture.”
Wilson was born and bred on a Scott County, Va., cattle farm where she learned and began to appreciate the law of the land and the natural ebb and flow of life in nature. In her adolescence, she briefly pursued other interests, taking a job at Eastman after high school, but “didn't really care for that.”
But it was there that the farmer's daughter met a local named Ray, who hails from Downtown Kingsport and attended Dobyns-Bennett High School. He was “not a likely farmer,” Wilson recalled smiling. They married in 1971 and started a family.
The couples' two children - Sarah, who has an 18-month-old son, and Jonathan, who lives in Houston, Texas - are now grown and married themselves, but they were the key component in Wilson's return to the lifeblood which flows through her veins.
"I really wanted my kids to grow up on a farm the same way I did,” Wilson said. “So, we moved from a two-acre lot in a subdivision to 25 acres near Rock Springs and then came out here [to Clover Creek Farm].”
Clover Creek began as a Charolais cattle farm, in nod to Wilson's own upbringing, when the family first moved to Harmony Road 25 years ago.
“I had cattle then and that was really all I ever planned on having,” Wilson said. “Until I decided to train a border collie around 20 years ago and you've got to train it with sheep.”
The farm started out with only 5 ewes, “but I kind of fell in love with the sheep, just their nature and just everything about them,” she said. “I decided at one point that 50 acres was not enough to raise enough cattle to be profitable, but it was plenty of room to raise my sheep. So, I sold my cows and increased my sheep flock and I've been happy ever since.”
Outside of sheep, Wilson has raised 12 border collies and large, white Akbash guardian dogs from Turkey whose sole purpose is to protect the flock as well as 50 free-range chickens, including those Wilson said are “retired” since they no longer lay eggs.
Clover Creek Farm is an Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) farm, which means it's certified by the independent organization for the practice of sustainable agriculture; livestock is selectively bred, naturally raised and humanely treated, never caged or confined; lambs are born on pasture, never weaned from their mothers and grass finished on native grasses until they're harvested and humanely processed; no antibiotics, hormones or steroids are ever used.
Wilson supplies Gourmet and Company of Johnson City with lean lamb for their lamb burger. She also sells premium cuts of lamb and eggs, which she said, “there's a big demand for” to patrons at the local Jonesborough Farmer's Market every week as well as online.
“I sell through an Internet company out of New York,” Wilson said. “I've been able to ship lamb all over the country. I've [even] shipped it to Alaska, Hawaii [and] the Caribbean Islands.”
Wilson said she likes to direct-market her products to consumers because “I don't really like somebody else telling me what I raise, what it's worth and I don't want somebody else pricing that for me... I feel like I've raised a premium product and I know more about it than anybody else and I am better at selling it.”
“It's a way of life. Making your own decisions, it's a type of freedom,” she said.
Wilson also heartily supports other local farmers and small businesses by buying their products in the belief it is “healthier”and more economically-efficient for the community at large.
Out on Harmony Road, Wilson feels just that, in 'harmony' with the animals and land she endeavors to be a “good steward” of and it isn't likely she'll ever leave.
“I suspect I'll be buried somewhere within the field, with my sheep,” Wilson said. “And I can't think of a better place to be.”
For more information on Clover Creek Farm, visit the Clover Creek website or call 423-753-2223.