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Solon Springs couple finds joy as shepherds

The day after Christmas, Debbi and Tom King left their guests relaxing at home in Solon Springs. The couple had some holiday cheer, in the form of animal crackers, to deliver to their sheep at Sunny Cove Farm.

Debbi King
Debbi King pets the cheek of one of the Icelandic Sheep at Sunny Cove Farm Wednesday, Dec. 26, in the town of Amnicon. She and her husband, Tom, have been shepherds for nearly a decade. (Maria Lockwood/mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)

The day after Christmas, Debbi and Tom King left their guests relaxing at home in Solon Springs. The couple had some holiday cheer, in the form of animal crackers, to deliver to their sheep at Sunny Cove Farm.

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Maria Lockwood/mlockwood@superiortelegram.com Sheep flock to Debbi King for animal crackers.

The retired educators have been raising Icelandic sheep in the town of Amnicon for nearly a decade. At one time, they had 15 animals. They're down to eight, all of which were born at Sunny Cove.

There's Haakon, who spent his first weeks in their basement after his mother rejected him. The brown and white sheep can use his prehensile lips to untie square knots and unscrew the caps on water bottles.

Hannah is the shy one, while leader sheep Ari is chairman of the hay committee. Even when tempted with animal crackers, the white sheep choose hay. He offered an occasional low bleat, mouth full of his favorite food, as the Kings went about their morning chores.

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The couple has to spell out words like grain, because a sheep named Torgeir knows them. And Debbi King's grain song can pull the entire group from one wooden feeder to the next, prancing in anticipation. Her songs punctuated the morning chores - "Greeting Song," "Hay Song," "Grain Song" and more.

"They're like a bunch of precocious 4-year-olds who respond to the preschool songs," Tom said.

It's a lot of work. The site has no electricity or well. They bring water from Solon Springs daily; work is done by hand, from hauling hay to composting refuse. In deep snow, the Kings ski in, pulling water and other necessities on a sled.

"We have helpers, too, that help us out, but we're here most days," Tom said.

"And there's not a day that's gone by that I haven't looked forward to being up here," his wife said. "I love it."

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Maria Lockwood/mlockwood@superiortelegram.com Tom King pets the head of one of the Icelandic sheep at Sunny Cove Farm.

The couple, both in their 60s, call it their "sheep fitness program."

Their son, Seth, a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, joined them Wednesday, Dec. 26, at Sunny Cove Farm. He enjoys helping with the sheep, from vaccinating to loading hay.

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"You know, some people's parents retire and move to Florida," Seth said. "I don't know - it's nice. Nice to come out and help them. Nice change of pace."

When they first bought the 10-acre parcel, the Solon Springs couple planted berries and a garden. Then they started researching what to do with the rest of it.

"I was thinking I would like to get back into a little farming," Debbi said, "because I grew up on our family's dairy farm."

They toured Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to explore options - llamas, alpacas, buffalo, cattle - before settling on Icelandic sheep.

"They're very hardy and they're quite parasite resistant," Debbi said. "They're quite different. They're a dark-skinned, very vigorous, primitive breed." They found a mentor in David Grote of Iron River, who raises Icelandic sheep, chickens and dogs on Whippoorwill Farm. Although Icelandic sheep can be used for meat, milk or wool, the Kings focus on silver-tipped wool that Debbi turns into fiber art. She's made many pieces for family and loved ones, including the hat Seth was wearing Wednesday. Future plans include an online store.

Tom and his sons, Seth and Adam, get to flex their Eagle Scout skills at the farm, but Debbi is the heart of the operation. When Haakon opened the latch to their garden on the site, letting the rest of his friends in to destroy everything, she replanted and went on to learn how to make green tomato relish.

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Maria Lockwood/mlockwood@superiortelegram.com Icelandic sheep look up from their hay at Sunny Cove Farm.

"Green tomato relish is so delicious," she said. "Now that's a go-to. We make it all the time."

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The couple takes hay out of the top of the barn first to clear an area for picnics. In the summer, it serves as a stage for performances by their folk music group Hallbjorn, named after one of their sheep.

"We make an adventure out of this place," Debbi said. "And we love to teach people about farming and sheep. It's nice to remember that this is really where we all came from in America, isn't it?"

It's not the traditional retirement path, but it's one the Kings embrace.

"It's a part of who I am," Debbi said.

Learn more about Icelandic sheep at isbona.com.

Related Topics: SOLON SPRINGSFARMING
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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