Moving to Flat Rock, Ala., from Southern California, Sherry Johnson loves farm life. Though she was surrounded by the suburbs, she always tried to live away from that so she could have her land and her horses. Having a love for horses and the farm, Sherry has fond memories and wanted her children to have that same connection to land that she had.
On 58 acres Sherry lives with her husband Larry, a retired electrician. When he and Sherry first attended the Chattanooga Market, he developed an interest in iron work.
“He would always watch the blacksmiths that were there demonstrating and wanted to learn about blacksmithing. He soon tried it out himself, loved it and has been doing it for about four years. He makes forks, steak flippers, all kinds of hooks and will sell them at the Chattanooga Market. We have yarn, ironwork, eggs, produce and meat … we are probably the most diverse booth at the Market,” Sherry insists.
Larry helps Sherry with jobs that may require the tractor or to get bales of hay, but pretty much, the farm business and the passion for it is hers.
Sherry brings Chard, Kale Arugula, lettuce and snow peas to the market as well as several types of peppers (hot and sweet). “We also bring some tomatoes but so many people grow those, we try to have different things to offer. We sell garlic every year - and not a lot of people do that at the Chattanooga Market,” Sherry says.
The main focus for Sheerlark is in their livestock, meat goats and dairy goats, though the dairy goats are for their personal enjoyment. She also raises sheep and lamb. Sherry sells lamb and wool products from the sheep.
“I don’t spin my yarn; I have it processed at a small wool mill called Stonehenge in Michigan. I ship it to them, they ship it back and I sell yarn either natural or… I do dye some. I dye with natural dyes, usually just single colors,” Sherry proclaims.
“We raise laying hens for eggs, and we also raise Chevon. Back in the 40s there was a competition held in Texas to come up for a name for ‘goat meat’. The winner came up with Chevon because ‘Chev’ in French was the word for goat and Mutton or ‘Mouton’ for Sheep. He came up with ‘Chevon’. I liked that name and thought it had a nice history to it, so I use that..
“Selling our meat to the Chattanooga Market, customers are mostly those that are interested in exploring different types of meats, or maybe for the health benefits - because it has the lowest fat and is the leanest red meat that there is,” Sherry says.
There are several ways to use goat meat if someone is not familiar with goat.
Sherry explains, “I tell people the same thing about the goat or the lamb… it is a young tender meat that is grass fed and it’s lean… so you don’t want to overcook it. If you are cooking something like chops, you want to use high heat and sear or broil it but keep the inside pink, because you don’t want it to turn into shoe leather. Another cut from the shoulder or something - you can braise it or cook it in the oven like pot roast. You can use it just like you use beef,” she states.
Walking around Sheerlark Farm it is plain to see the careful attention given to the goats and other livestock. The goats are separated in different areas across the pastures and barns with plenty of room to roam and graze.
There is a reason a farmer raises goats in this manner - which Sherry elucidates. “Goats are very clean animals, very picky eaters. If the food falls on the ground and gets dirty; they won’t touch it - they don’t like trash. It's a misconception that goats eat tin cans and such. Just as babies explore the world and put everything in their mouths, goats do the same thing. They are just checking things out. They might chew on something, but they are only exploring.”
Sherry continues, “Goats milk tastes like milk. If you treat it like milk from a cow dairy, it tastes just as sweet, just as fresh. If you feed them bad feed, keep them in a smaller building or if you keep them near the bucks (the males), you can get some ‘off’ flavors,” she says. “The males have a certain smell in breeding season. It’s part of their way of attracting the does.”
Sherry insists, “You need to clean them, brush them, wash their udder before milking, milk with clean equipment, filter it and chill it immediately – and you will have good-tasting milk.”
Does it hurt the sheep to shear them?
“We do it about once a year. They do get really hot from having a full fleece on,” Sherry admits. "They are more comfortable after they are shorn. Shearers, who are experienced, actually learn a certain pattern and start in a certain place.” Sherry breaks her sentence in order to explain, “- a sheep is different than a goat. Goats are dramatic when they get stuck or caught in something and they scream out. Sheep are quiet and still. So when they are sheared, the shearers put them on their dock - where their tail would come out. They sit them down and hold them and the sheep will not struggle,” Sherry maintains.
“The shearers know this and know how to work with them. I don’t do it because I would take way too long to shear sheep. We had 18 sheep shorn recently and with two shearers - it took about three hours. It would take me that long just to do one!” Sherry laughs.
The shearers will also go through and check the sheep’s hooves and their eye color to make sure they are not anemic from parasites.
“We shear the mothers but the babies from this year they will go to market and never be shorn; their wool will not be that long. We take them to be processed at H&P Meats in South Pittsburg. They have been processing for us since about 2006,” Sherry says.
‘Lamb’ is a young sheep under a year old. If it is a little older than that, it is called a ‘yearling mutton’. When they are older than that stage, it’s called ‘mutton’.
“Not too many people in the United States like mutton. The fat in older sheep can get an odor possibly because of the lanolin,” Sherry explains. “We sell goat meat and lamb. But smells can get in anything depending on how it’s raised - cows that eat a lot of onion … you may taste it in the milk or, in the Mediterranean, the wild sheep and goat graze on oregano and rosemary and they sort of come …‘pre-seasoned’ as it does impart flavor into the meat,” Sherry states.
“I’m a foodie and to me, different things are interesting. I became a vegetarian before there was actually a movement for humanly-raised, pasture-raised, organic meat. The meat that was available was the factory-farm kind of meat. I was pregnant and had daughters; I didn’t want to feed them that. I opted out of that system and over time - it has been so long since I ate meat, I just don’t have the desire for it anymore but I am a meat cook,” Sherry insists, “I cook it all the time for other people. If I go to potlucks - I always take a leg of lamb or a leg of goat and introduce people to it. I know if I cook it, then it is done right and it won’t be messed up,” she vows.
One of the most rewarding things for the Johnsons is to be a part of an internship program called “Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms” (WWOOF).
“We joined and support WWOOF, The people that are interested in learning about farming can join and, as members, they can get access to the host-directory online, can see what farms there are and make contact with you. We have hosted about 35 or 40 interns,” Sherry says, proudly.
“They are volunteers, not paid workers; they get room and board, meals and education in exchange for their labor. Some want to go into farming and others just want the experience and to learn where their food comes from. They really enjoy their experience here,” Sherry relates.
“I had a young woman that came from the Seattle area; she was from somewhat of a dysfunctional family and had stayed with us for about three months. She became like family - they all do. They are around our kids' age; we tell them ‘we are going to be parental to you because that is just how we are’,” Sherry says. “This girl was a city kid and didn’t know anything about the farm. We had baby chicks and she had no idea what to do. Later, her mother sent us a card and said what a gift it was for her daughter to have had this experience. I think it really impacted her life. She is not farming now but she is on track and doing good things.”
Sherry wanted her daughters to be involved in farming and livestock. “I had a dairy goat or two and I liked that. I got them involved with it and also with 4H. They were totally responsible for their own herds of dairy goats and sheep. They were also home schooled and that was part of their education - I feel an important part,” Sherry says.
She says, "The woman who owned this farm passed away and a friend of mine was one of the heirs. I had come to visit them one time and they told me that I was part of the family and if I wanted the farm, they would hold it for us. We came and looked at it. Larry and I fell in love with it and we made a ‘handshake agreement’ like they do here in the South. It was really strange compared to selling real estate in California. We packed up everything and came here. Ms. Florence and her husband, Vance, built the house in 1945. This is part of a homestead from Grover Cleveland. I have the homestead deed, which is pretty cool. I love farming and love animals, but wanted the land to give to my children,” Sherry says. “Farms are important. If people don’t buy from the local farms, the farms are going to die.”
She concludes, “We belong to the land and it belongs to us - not in an ownership way, but in a partnership way.”
Visit the website at http://sheerlarkfarm.com/