Ben Powell, right, his son, Mark, and granddaughter, Grace, 6, display a Hampshire ewe with two black lambs on Linwood Farm. The Powell family has raised sheep for more than 100 years and across six generations. Now retired, Ben Powell spearheaded 4-H projects across Tennessee for decades.
Ken Beck/The Wilson PostLinwood FarmHampshire, Southdown & Dorset SheepPhone: 237-3200 By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post
Ben Powell, 72, serves as a walking, talking encyclopedia on all things agricultural about Tennessee.
But he takes modest pride in the fact that for more than 100 years, his family has raised sheep on their farms in the Linwood community between Tuckers Crossroads and Watertown.
Today, he and his son, Mark, watch over a flock of 125 ewes representing three breeds: Hampshire, Southdown and Dorset. Before spring yields to summer, each ewe will give birth to one or two (and on occasion three) lambs.
“We’ve had sheep here all my life. I can document back to my great-grandmother and now my 6-year-old granddaughter. She showed her first sheep this past year,” said Powell, who served for 40 years across the state as a leader of 4-H. “Ask Grace what she wants to be, and she’ll say a farmer. So that makes six generations raising sheep on these pastures.”
It’s more than tradition that keeps Powell and his offspring working with sheep. It’s partly pure enjoyment.
“Sheep are used quite a lot in the Bible describing various things from Jesus on down. Just watching them jump and play is very satisfying,” the shepherd said.
“Raising a lamb is an ideal 4-H project for those who live on a small farm. It’s a small animal that any child can handle. It doesn’t have to be year round. You can buy lambs and sell them in three months,” said Powell, who showed his first sheep at the Wilson County Fair of 1954. “This can be a great teacher of life skills. I think having an animal to care for offers an important opportunity for youngsters in their growing-up years.”
Powell’s son, Mark, who manages the Wilson Farmers Co-op, echoes similar sentiments.
“It’s just something I’ve always done. They’re easy to work with. You can come down here (to the barn) and get away from work and just be by yourself. I enjoy working in something and then exhibiting it at the fair and having pride in presenting it,” said Mark, who as a fourth-grader displayed his first lamb at the Tennessee Valley Fair in Knox County.
“It’s very important to carry on a tradition and keep the family business going. It’s more than just a business,” he said. “It’s the way you teach your kids. You don’t have to teach them how to work, they just come out here and do it.”
As for his eldest daughter, Grace, 6, she says of sheep, “They run, and they’re fun to watch. I feed and water them.”
Grace has exhibited sheep at five county fairs and three state fairs in the past year.
Sheep farming possesses a long and storied past in Wilson County. It was celebrated with great fanfare when the late W.C. Clay and his wife Eddie, recent inductees into the Wilson County Agricultural Hall of Fame and renowned for raising sheep, along with Jim Ward and Claire Gilbert organized a wool pool and initiated an annual Lamb Festival on June 6, 1941.
“It involved sales of lambs and wool, and for several years they had a parade. I can remember as a boy seeing that parade,” Powell said. “Wilson County sheep farming was at its peak in the late 1940s and No. 1 in production in the state. Practically every farm had some sheep, from then on up to the mid-1950s.
“I’ve heard them talk of shipping lambs by the trainloads from here. Wool was a big thing then too, with the Lebanon Woolen Mills in its heyday.”
Powell serves as secretary-treasurer of the Tennessee Sheep Producers Association and runs the Tennessee Wool Pool, held in Columbia and Maryville.
“That’s where farmers bring in their wool. It is weighed and graded by the Tennessee Agricultural Department. It will be sold as one big lot,” Powell said. “Last year wool brought an average price of 48 cents a pound. You get roughly 8 pounds of wool from a sheep or $5 for one fleece.
“From one fleece, manufacturers get enough wool to produce a man’s three-piece suit. The problem is getting sheep sheared. There are not many shearers around. It costs about as much to shear them as the wool will bring.”
Powell earned double majors in animal husbandry and agriculture education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, but his real education began at home. A long white fence runs as a border between the farm and a section of Poplar Hill Road. On the other side, ewes rest in a grove of trees. A white farmhouse sits on a small hill with barns and a feed bin nearby. A dirt road winds on around past the farmhouse to a log cabin on a higher hill where Powell has made his home since 2002.
“I was born right here on this farm in a little house that is gone now. I grew up here and went 12 years to Watertown school,” said the son of the late Robert and Allene (Vantrease) Powell, a family that raised tobacco, oats, barley, corn, hogs, cattle and sheep on 240 acres.
After college, Powell served as the 4-H agent in Rutherford County from 1959 to 1969. He and his late wife, Charline Hamilton, met at 4-H camp and were married for 25 years, until her death in 1987.
“I was left a single dad for a 13-year-old daughter and 17- and 19-year-old sons, but we made it,” says the grandfather of eight who worked for 30 years at the State 4-H headquarters at UT in Knoxville.
During his last 18 years, he was the State 4-H Club leader, and he guided 4-H programs across Tennessee and supplied 4-H agents in each county with training and assistance in coordinating events. That took him to every county in the state but three. Part of his legacy is that today more than 300,000 young people across Tennessee participate in 4-H.
Between Powell and his three children, they have earned seven degrees in animal sciences, and all work in agriculture.
“My son, Mark, and his wife, Jenni, moved in (to the farm), and he is really the one who does work on the farm. He does most of his farming at night and on Saturday afternoons.”
(By mere coincidence, he, son Mark and daughter Amy Williams all drive green Dodge Ram trucks.)
Powell's other son, Thomas, serves as executive director of the American Meat Science Association in Champaign, Ill. And Amy had been the 4-H agent in Loudon County for the past 12 years, but recently joined the state 4-H staff in Knoxville in a position similar to the one her dad used to hold. Amy and her husband also have a farm in McMinn County.
The Linwood Farm sheep are purebred registered, and each breed has its own personality.
“Some are very docile, some very nervous, some are very stubborn. A lot depends on the kind of care they have on how they will react,” Powell said.
“We sell some to other breeders, but the majority of our sales are for meat. Most are sold here on the farm. People come here to get them. One of our goals is to try to have lambs ready as near year round as possible. Using three breeds helps that.”
Powell noted that many of their customers come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds representing such countries as Uzbekistan, Mexico, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Jordan and Iran, and that some drive from as far away as Knoxville.
“Most of them slaughter the lambs right here on the farm themselves,” he said. “We probably eat more lamb than we do beef. We’ll have at least two or three a year slaughtered.”
Most lambs are born in February and March. The gestation period for sheep is five months.
“From now until fall, there are not a lot of chores if you have pasture. Work with sheep comes at lambing time,” Powell said. “It’s necessary to keep an eye on them and assist a ewe if it’s having trouble. You feed grain to the ewes starting about six weeks before lambs are born. Once they have the lamb, you feed them primarily hay and grain.”
One of the major reasons for the decline of sheep farming over the past decades has been the problem of predators, mainly dogs and coyotes. But there are methods of keeping the predators at bay, from electric fences to guard animals such as dogs like the Great Pyrenees to donkeys and llamas.
“We have five llamas. They are pretty effective in chasing away dogs or anything that comes into the fields that they are not familiar with,” Powell said of the South Amercian camelid that will eat the same diet as sheep and eat beside them, while dogs will not.
The shepherd estimates there are two dozen sheep farms in Wilson County now, but things are changing and the numbers are beginning to go up, primarily, he said, because of breeds of sheep that have hair instead of wool, thus no shearing is necessary.
“Two of the major breeds of hair sheep are Dorper and Katahdin. They do not need shearing. They look pretty much like a goat, but they are sheep,” said Powell who was inducted into the 4-H National Hall of Fame four years ago.
Powell is a member of the Nashville Area Farmers Club as well as Historic Watertown and serves as vice chairman of the Wilson County Agriculture Hall of Fame.
“One of our projects right now is that we are hoping to get a building at the fairgrounds which would provide us with a home for the Wilson County Agricultural Hall of Fame, a state 4-H Museum and state FFA (Future Farmers of America) Museum.”
In the meantime, Powell enjoys going fishing at the pond on the farm with his three young granddaughters who live next door.
Having had knee replacement surgery recently, he motors about the farm on a golf cart. His cabin on the hill faces east down to pastures, pond and sheep, as pretty a pastoral scene that Middle Tennessee has to offer.
"It has been a life-long dream to have a place like this to live and to be able to look over the land and see the sheep and watch my grandchildren at play. Someone told me, 'This is almost heaven on earth.' It is very satisfying and fulfilling," said the easy-going shepherd of the Wilson County hills.
Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.