Busy, but never too busy. That is how many people in the sheep industry in Coshocton County and throughout Ohio would describe this year’s Charles Boyles Master Shepherd of the Year, Karen Locke.
Locke’s century old sheep operation is set in Coshocton County’s rolling hills and is now being worked by the fifth generation of Karen’s family, including her husband of over 50 years, Leon. Over the years and generations, the size of the farm has grown modestly.
“My grandfather purchased the first 80 acres and then my father added more land to where we have 220 acres,” Locke said. “We have continued to add onto the farm with contiguous acres and today we are close to 500 acres all told.”
Although the farm size has increased, the flock size, which is usually close to 300 to 400 head, is down just a little bit.
“Right now we have about 200 ewes,” Locke said. “Most of the adults on the farm have other part-time jobs so that number is lower than usual, but just about right for right now.”
Karen has been heavily involved in the sheep industry since 1957 and as the farm has grown over the years, so has the list of responsibilities.
“We still have some acres for crops and we practice heavy rotational grazing,” Locke said. “So, there are always fences to build and waterways to fix.”
The waterway system on Locke Farms, started by Karen’s father with clay tiles, is quite extensive and includes three self-watering systems that Karen and Leon developed with the help of Soil and Water. As the farm’s acres increased and internal fencing was built, the need for additional water lines developed.
“We were able to take the water from both sides of the farm and put in thousands and thousands of feet of waterlines,” Locke said. “In some of our major fields we have also left some large swales for drainage, all while farming with practices that will keep our soil in place.”
The use of rotational grazing has been one of the most beneficial techniques that Karen and Leon have used.
“Years ago, we were worming until there were no other solutions to the problem using medicine,” Locke said. “Rotational grazing currently has our worming program from once a month 15 years ago to now worming once, for sure, out of their lambing jugs, then again in the spring. Then, only 3% of the flock will require any additional worming after that.”
Locke’s accomplishments on the farm speak for themselves, but her endeavors off the farm are highlighted by the many people that Locke has helped along the way, to not only better that individual but to better the industry as a whole.
Locke was a board member of the Coshocton-Tuscarawas Sheep Improvement Committee for 30 years, holding the title of both President and Secretary multiple times. She received the distinguished service award from the committee in 1997.
She was also a charter member of the Ohio Lamb and Wool Board, serving as Chairperson for three years of her 1989-1998 tenure and she is a lifetime member of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association after serving as a board member for over 15 years.
“Karen has been a really good volunteer and a true asset from the educational side of the industry,” said Roger A. High, executive director of The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. “For several years when I taught sheep production at Ohio State University, Karen’s farm was one of the farms we stopped to visit every year because of her passion and the interest that she had in the industry and she has an excellent farm to demonstrate how sheep production should be done. On the state committees, Karen had a knack for getting others to be as involved as she was. She always brought a lot of discussion to our board meetings and always gave all of the other members something to think about.”
That forward-thinking caught the attention of many in the sheep industry.
“As I got to know Karen a little better over the years, the one word I use to describe her is passion,” said Jim Chakeres, former leader of Ohio’s sheep organizations. “She is passionate about her family, passionate about her sheep and passionate about the industry. I think that the leadership that she brought to us early on was critical. People like Karen are why we have a viable sheep industry in Ohio today.”
Locke’s volunteerism within the sheep industry went far beyond the peer level. She was also heavily involved in working with youth to ensure that the next generation of producers would be heading in the right direction to better the industry.
“Very early on in my involvement as the state’s sheep organizations’ executive director, I made a trip to the Coshocton County Fair,” Chakeres said. “When I visited that year I saw, firsthand, Karen working with all of the kids that were there and knew from that point the commitment Karen had for the sheep industry in Ohio.”
That commitment to sheep and the youth involved with sheep led to Locke being a major part of the development of sheep shearing schools 35 years ago and heading up the Lamb and Wool Queen contest in Ohio.
“For me, it was always family first and the farm second,” Locke said. “It just so happened that my kids’ involvement on the farm allowed me to enjoy both at the same time.”
Locke believes her kids learned some valuable lessons on the farm, and in the show ring, that they all use today as adults succeeding in their various careers in and outside of agriculture. She hopes those lessons stretched beyond her family and to the young people that were part of her 4-H clubs over the years as well.
“I would always tell my 4-Hers that it didn’t matter what their project was,” Locke said. “What really mattered is how they handled that project and how they worked with their family and learned some of the skills that they will need for their life. I hope that has been helpful.”