It isn’t very often that a successful farm story begins off of the farm, but for the 2015 Charles Boyles Master Shepherd of the Year, it does.
Cynthia Koonce of Blue Heron Farm in Lisbon began with a small flock in Maryland with no agriculture background to speak of and eventually moved her operation of 35 sheep to the rugged terrain in the northeast part of the Buckeye State in Columbiana County.
“We bought this place 25 years ago,” Koonce said. “It was my dream farm with 225 acres on a lake.”
Blue Heron Farm now has 350 ewes, including replacements and the farm is mainly used for lamb production.
“I pride myself on my lamb,” Koonce said. “I think we produce the best carcass in the state.”
Getting to that level of production didn’t just happen. Koonce has taken many opportunities to educate herself on the industry trends and is always willing to learn something new to make her farm better.
“Whether it be a video that ASI puts out, or traveling to the ASI convention or to other parts of the world, I try to take it all in,” Koonce said. “I like to think that because of that extra effort that I am innovative. Part of that is because I wasn’t raised in a farm family.
“When we bought our first farm 50 years ago, that was the first exposure I ever had to livestock and I never had an older generation of farmers to kind of dictate what I did on the farm. I just learn by doing, I guess.”
One of the early challenges with the acreage that Blue Heron Farm settled on in Ohio was that the land had been heavily stripped years earlier and what was left from mining was not pretty.
“It must have been a mess at the time it was stripped,” Koonce said. “From what I have heard and what I have seen on parts of this piece of ground, it was a real mess.”
That meant a good bit of effort just to get the land fit for grazing, which was tricky when it came to keeping the land’s multiple waterways clean and keeping the lake neighbors happy downstream.
“To me, it has always been a matter of common sense,” Koonce said. “You don’t want any manure running down any streams that are on your property. Fortunately, most of the runoff here is from the woods, but because some waterways are from the pasture, I don’t do crops as a rule.”
When the budget allowed, Koonce has put down some lime and fertilizer to keep her pastures up. Rotational grazing has also been very beneficial.
Over the years, neighbors have taken note of what Blue Heron Farm has done to protect the environment. Environmental success on Koonce’s property has helped shape he surrounding properties, which has impacted the watershed in a positive way.
“A good portion of the land around here is not farmed in the traditional sense,” Koonce said. “It’s grazing and tree farms. I think that is way that it should be so we aren’t contributing to the pollution of our own lake.”
Koonce has loved being a part of the sheep industry and has traveled the world meeting with other sheep producers to learn and to teach.
“I like meeting sheep people and dealing with sheep people and trading stories with the old guys,” she said. “I really enjoy the personalities of sheep people. Sheep people are a lot alike anywhere in the world.”
Koonce’s success in the industry is certainly a useful tool and a roadmap for other farmers or future farmers interested in starting a sheep farm from scratch.
“You have to be very selective on the animals that you keep and you have to be sure you put the right genetics with the conditions that you plan on raising a flock in,” said Roger A. High, executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. “Cynthia has done an ideal job of doing just that in the hills of Columbiana County and has managed her 350 ewes very successfully over the years.”
As much as Koonce has led the sheep industry on the farm, she has shown the same type of leadership in the OSIA boardroom.
“She brings a fresh, new perspective to our meetings,” High said. “She has been able to collect a lot of information both on a national and international scale and she finds ways to utilize those ideas here in Ohio.”
Koonce isn’t one to keep secrets to her success at Blue Heron Farm and her approach to farming is something she openly shares with others.
“Cynthia is very smart and she speaks her mind,” said Shawn Ray, president of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. “She knows the subject matter, not by just what she practices, but by what she’s read, seen and learned and when we get into a discussion, she makes people think about what is right and what is wrong. With her farm in northeast Ohio, she is about as far away as she can get from a sheep meeting and she still keeps up great attendance and you have to appreciate her dedication to the industry and the organization. “
In a room full of sheep farmers at OSIA meetings, one glaring difference with Koonce is that she brings a different viewpoint because she was not born into the business.
“She has a completely different perspective from all of us that grew up around sheep and have been around them all of our life,” said Daryl Clark, an OSIA board member who farms in Muskingum County. “She comes at this industry from a different direction and as a result of that she looks at aspects of what we do that others wouldn’t notice.
“Sometimes when we grow up on a farm we maybe get to the point where we are looking too much at some of the financial aspects and she has a 360-degree perspective that I really appreciate about her.”
Koonce received her Charles Boyles Master Shepherd of the Year honor on Dec. 12 at the 2015 Buckeye Shepherd’s Symposium in Wooster.