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Icelandic sheep farmers' fortunes make for a good yarn

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It was a decision that has since proved anything but woolly-headed.

With just a few dollars to their name, the Strand family put their livelihood on the line as they hitched up two trailers of livestock for a 1,600-mile journey in the dead of last winter to pursue their farming dream in Minnesota, the St. Cloud Times reports.

Minnesota natives Jared and Lydia Strand had spent the last decade in the Pacific Northwest, where they had given up their day jobs to become hobby farmers, and last year decided the time had come to try their luck on a piece of land in Little Falls.

The arduous journey halfway across the country prompted second thoughts as they traveled during one of the worst winters in recent memory. Fortunately, their gamble paid off, thanks in no small part to their flock of Icelandic sheep.

The Strands were chosen out of 250 applicants following a Craigslist plea by landowner Allen Selinski for tenants to open a hobby farm on his 10-acre plot in Little Falls, and since then their business – Lydia's Flock – has gone from strength to strength, the newspaper notes.

The centerpiece of their farm is their flock of 36 Icelandic sheep, which in the past year have produced around 110 skeins of yarn that sell for as much as $38 per skein, the Times says.

The Strands decided to get into sheep farming when living in Washington four years ago and the flock started out as just four ewes and two rams, according to the Lydia's Flock website. But the quality of the breed convinced them spend their entire savings to transport them all the way home to Minnesota, rather than selling up before they left and buying more stock when they arrived.

They learned the trade when they joined a community farming co-ops in Seattle as a hobby after moving there in 2005, but decided to try it themselves when they bought their first house in in the city in 2008, according to the Morrison County Record.

"We started raising chickens in our backyard. We probably had far more chickens than the city would have allowed," Lydia, who grew up in Coon Rapids, told the newspaper.

Jared, 41, who is originally from Maplewood, turned his attention to sheep, and after the couple initially experimented by taking on a Shetland ewe and a Black Welsh ram from a local fair, they decided to be faithful to their Scandinavian roots by opting to farm with Icelandic sheep, the Record reports.

Since moving back to Minnesota, they shear their sheep twice a year and the wool is processed at Northern Woolen Mills in Fosston, the newspaper notes. Those sheep that don't have the right "temperament," fleece quality and lambing ability for the farm are culled for meat. They also have 42 egg-producing chickens on site.

Speaking to the Record, Lydia said: "Personality is ... very important. If we have a ram who is inappropriately behaved he does not stay. So he’s writing his own ticket to the freezer. Any kind of ill-behaved animal is not tolerated here."

At the moment the farm is not enough to sustain the family, with Jared working at a car dealership locally so Lydia can continue to grow the business, according to the Times. But the newspaper reveals they intend to grow their business by adding bees to their farm in the spring, as well as a vegetable plot next year.

But wherever their future takes them, their Icelandic sheep will always have pride of place on the farm.

Icelandic sheep in America

The Icelandic sheep is one of the oldest breeds in the world, with a history dating back 1,100 years, according to the Icelandic Sheep Breeders of North America.

They are descended from a Norwegian variety which were brought to Iceland by Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Oklahoma State University Animal Science department says.

Because of their upbringing and evolution on Iceland, they are an efficient, hardy breed that is capable of surviving the extreme cold – perfect for Minnesota winters.

They are also versatile, with HeartsEase Icelandic Sheep noting that not only is their wool in demand, but they also produce high-quality milk and meat.

They were not bred anywhere outside of Iceland until 1985, when they were imported into Canada, and didn't enter the United States until 1990, according o Nordicsheep.com.

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