Midwives Flock to Lambing Time
Andrea Clark stumbles from a bed she’s barely slept in, wearing the smelly jeans and shirt she had on just a few hours earlier, to do a job she’s paying to do.
“Let’s go check for babies,” Clark, 32, tells her mother as they make their way to the nearby corrals and hundreds of pregnant sheep.
It’s 2 a.m. The air is crisp and the women are tired. But if they came to Pachy Burns’ ranch hoping to be pampered or to spend relaxing nights under the Big Sky, they’ve driven down the wrong gravel road.
This is “Jam to Lamb,” a monthlong getaway that has brought Clark, a bank worker from Lakeside, Mont., and about other 30 women from around the country to Burns’ ranch, where they share her rural lifestyle and the work that comes with lambing 700 sheep.
Many are stepping onto a ranch for the first time, in brand-new work boots they’d have little use for back home in the city. Others are here in search of adventure, game to cast aside their curling irons and khakis for a few days in favor of baseball caps and jeans. Nearly all are in for experiences that they never dreamed of when they made reservations on cards that listed “blisters to calluses” and “hands-on learning” as benefits.
“You certainly can’t worry about getting dirty,” said Ellie Taege, a psychotherapist from Rhinelander, Wis., her T-shirt speckled with manure and her new gloves stained with iodine used on lambs’ umbilical cords to help prevent infections.
On Burns’ ranch, the accommodations aren’t lavish and the workload isn’t light. There isn’t even a guarantee of a bed in Burns’ house -- women are asked to bring sleeping bags, just in case -- and there is only one bathroom to share. Many simply fall asleep with the smell of sheep still on them, too tired or too busy for their turn in the shower.
Everyone is expected to chip in -- from checking ewes and tending lambs to fixing dinner and mowing the lawn when the action dies down -- and to apply what they’ve learned from watching Burns to finish all that needs to be done.
“I never want people to think they’re being waited on,” said Burns, 53, who works almost nonstop from sunrise to nightfall, powered by strong coffee and adrenaline. She labors according to a schedule set by the pregnant ewes -- not clocks or her guests’ rumbling bellies.
Women come to lambing camp for different reasons, paying $250 for a week of distractions from their busy lives. They forget their needs and problems almost as quickly as they drop their duffel bags in Burns’ house.
“Jam to Lamb” is about sheep and getting elbow-deep into a way of life that is fading across Montana and the West. The small house is filled with all manner of sheep- and farm-related stuff: magazines, sketches, a few knickknacks, wool blankets. Even meals are made around a main dish of lamb that Burns generally has prepared ahead of time. Shepherd’s pie is a favorite.
“Jam to Lamb” has given Burns the opportunity to promote the lamb and wool industry by giving women, many with no background in agriculture, firsthand experience with the work that goes into producing the food and clothes they buy. Hers are among 300,000 sheep in Montana -- little more than half as many as 10 years ago, when there were 564,000 head.
“As long as I’m in the sheep business, I’m going to bring people in,” said Burns, who moved to the ranch in 1983. “If you can’t speak about what you believe in, what’s the point of believing in it?”
Burns never intended to make the program an all-woman event -- or even an event, for that matter.
But a few years ago after her daughters, Piney and Bluesette, had left for college and started lives of their own, Burns found it difficult to keep up with the work. Her friend, Darcia Diehl, showed up at lambing camp with five friends. The work went well, her friends told their friends, and this time of year hasn’t been the same for Burns since.
In the seven years that she’s held “Jam to Lamb,” at least 15 women have helped during each lambing season. Interest this year was so high that she had to turn people away, Burns says.
“They must have some sense of adventure, walking onto a strange ranch like this,” Burns said. “I admire them for that. I don’t know I’d ever do something like that.”
There are a few men on the ranch; Burns has two full-time sheepherders. Dennis Baumann, who rented a trailer on Burns’ ranch with his wife, Lara, and two girls for three months, has helped in the evenings and on weekends. The occasional husband or boyfriend also stops by.
But, largely, women run this show. Clark and her mother, Gayle Reid, are grateful for that. The two took a week’s vacation to return to the ranch for their second year.
“Being around women frees you to ask more questions. You’re not afraid to look stupid,” said Reid, 53, an office manager from Missoula. “In the company of men, when you ask questions, they come and take over and do it themselves.”
“Or,” Clark added, “they don’t have the patience for us to ask questions and learn.”
Recently, Clark found herself on her hands and knees in a 4-by-4-foot pen, groping in the darkness for something to offer a hungry lamb as Reid whispered soothing words to the squirming ewe she was holding. After a few minutes, the lamb was wagging its tail and making sucking sounds that brought smiles all around.
Burns and her elder daughter, Piney Hardiman, work beside the women, teaching them jobs such as milking and bottle-feeding, and matching ewes to lambs with painted-on brands. Hardiman is back in the thick of lambing for the first time this year, returning to a way of life that she disliked while growing up but now wants to share with her two young children.
“Now I appreciate it and the hard work and what my mom went through,” said Hardiman, 32. “Part of the experience is you’re so exhausted, your vulnerable side comes out. It makes for kind of a wild time.”
Becky Helgerson can relate. Her husband sent her to lambing camp for 10 days -- twice the length of the average stay -- for her 40th birthday last year. She spent most of the time working with Burns and working hard, often eating supper at 11 p.m.
Toward the end of her stay, her arms aching from lifting water buckets over the sheep pens, Helgerson called her husband in Ottumwa, Iowa. “It was three days before I was supposed to leave and I said, ‘Make an appointment with my massage therapist,’ ” she said.
But she enjoyed the experience of “doing something useful” so much that she returned this year with her 11-year-old son.
“My friends think I’m crazy and they don’t want to come,” she said, her white turtleneck and jeans smeared by manure. “But they always want to see my pictures.”
Burns is honest with the women, sometimes stern and always direct. When lambing starts in earnest, she cannot afford for them to coo over fluffy newborns or to cry over dead ones. They must stay focused on the task at hand, she says.
But Burns is patient, remembering her own road here: the initial shock of seeing her first lambs born with tails and the sharp learning curve that came with starting a sheep ranch despite having no experience with sheep or ranching. As she works -- delivering a breech lamb, for example -- she explains what she’s doing and why.
Burns recently explained to Nancy Wilson, a friend of Taege’s, why a badly deformed lamb needed to be killed.
“It makes me sad, but it’s important that we’re sad,” said Wilson, 55, a psychiatrist from Rhinelander, Wis. “It would be unfortunate if we didn’t feel that way.”
Wilson, who bought boots and gloves just for the trip, says she had expected to work hard and hoped to see a lamb born on Easter morning. She actually saw several.
“The idea of new life in the spring and of helping newborn lambs get started, I just love that idea,” she said.