Where There's a Wool, There's a Way

Local farmer Jan Dean offers insight to CAFNRM students

News Writer Nick Carrion

Photographer Elizabeth Lough

Sheep Farm

For graduates of UH Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) the choice to pursue animal science - either livestock production or pre-veterinary medicine - can seem daunting. Students can spend countless hours studying, and countless more on UH Hilo’s 110-acre agriculture farm laboratory. Dirt, wool, manure—if it’s found on a farm, they’ve probably been covered in it.

Of course, even the kind of hands on experience CAFNRM accumulated can’t protect graduates from the uncertain future of today’s job market in Hawai‘i. How does one turn a degree into a stable and rewarding career?

Sheep farm business

Ke Kalahea recently spoke with Jan Dean, owns and operates a 12.25 acre wool production farm in Honoka‘a. She started Maluhia Farm in 2003, turning the plot of old sugar cane land that had been gifted to her sons by her first husband into one of the Big Island’s only family-owned sheep farms. She maintains a small flock of about 25 Romneys, a breed of sheep adapted to wet weather conditions.

It’s not a large operation, but it is a challenging one. Farmers on this island face a unique set of difficulties that Dean hopes new graduates understand when they set out on their own careers.

“Our island geography provides a number of challenges,” Dean said. “Limited genetics is one of the biggest. We do not have sale barns, where we can quickly buy or sell animals. Bringing in the desirable genetics is very expensive and also risky; animals may not adapt to our climate and forages. We also have a high parasite load, and animals need to have parasite resistance. Tropical weather can be problematic. When we experience hot, still, humid weather, fly strike can occur, which is deadly if not caught in time. Large animal veterinary services and sheep are not a high priority with them for experience and knowledge. Shearing services are basically nonexistent.”

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Yikes. That’s almost enough to turn someone off the idea of farming in the first place. With seemingly so many negatives, how can anyone hope to succeed in this field. But such is the case with any career choice, especially with the uncertain conditions of today’s world. It seems there is no such thing as a “stable” job field anymore, and in farming, like any situation, you get back what you put into it.

Dean is able to support herself by selling the wool, mostly to crafters, and at all stages of processing (raw fleece, spun yarn, dyed or natural). Furthermore, Dean expresses great interest in offering advice to the next generation of agriculture workers.

“The first thing to consider is how well you can handle risk; there are no greater gamblers than farmers,” Dean said. “While we have some tools to help, there is much out of our control. How well can you adapt in your ability to learn new skills, make creative decisions, and develop your own resources? How well can you work with others in your field? Farming is essentially a shared experience and doing it alone is a very hard way to go. Figure out what your financial needs and resources are—how can you get use of land, are there grants and government resources available to you? Being informed is critical. Will your production support the farm? Will it support you? What will you do when exceptional financial input is required?”

And UH graduates may be much more prepared than many to take on these challenges. In fact, Dean admits that if there was one thing she would have done differently, it would have been to gain more education, especially in the genetics, biology, and anatomy of the animals she raises.

Dean also stresses how rewarding her work can be. She mentions the story of Val, one lucky lamb who came down with an illness and didn’t look like he was going to make it. After trying numerous unsuccessful remedies, she realized he wasn’t getting enough yeast in his stomach for proper digestion. The solution? A little bit of dark beer. Val still lives happily on the farm, although he’s since kicked the booze habit.

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As for those who work hard and wish to find gainful employment in the agricultural sector, Dean reminds CAFNRM students to remember why they chose this path in the first place.

“How great is your passion and commitment to your production? There are so many daily and long term challenges, your heart must be in it to sustain you.”