MOORESTOWN – Charlene Carlisle stood in a large barn with huge bales of hay stacked to her right.
She picked up a bottle and called two little lambs.
“Come get your bottle. ”
The two 3 week old black lambs trotted, one first, the other timidly following. The couple eagerly sucked on the bottle, getting as much milk as possible.
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Carlisle, 59, and her husband Kenneth Carlisle, 60, operate Little Hooves, considered the largest sheep farm in South Jersey and among the largest in the state.
Little Hooves, with a herd of 300 sheep at the Old Winner Farm along Centerton Road, sits across from the housing estates and on the same farmland home to the Burlington County Agricultural Center and Farmers Market.
The Carlisles own their business but lease the farmland and other buildings on the property, including their house, to the county, Charlene Carlisle said.
The county bought the farm in 2004 for $ 7.14 million as part of its farmland preservation program, with Moorestown paying 20 percent of the cost. A deed restriction prohibits any future non-agricultural development.
The sheep remain on the 69-acre farm that once included a large, well-known dairy farm. Kenneth Carlisle helped run the farm when it was owned by the Winner family.
Hundreds of cows once grazed the land and were part of the Carlisles herd until they sold them years ago.
“When the cows left 13 years ago, we already had sheep, but we just had more,” Charlene Carlisle said with a laugh.
“Our children have grown up. It’s (a dairy farm) a lot of labor intensive and there are a lot of expensive houses out there that don’t like the smell of cows and flies. So it kind of got pushed back because of the development.
“Lambs and sheep are easier to make for my husband and I. “
Carlisle said they started with three sheep about 25 years ago as part of a 4-H project with their children and that it continues.
“I think our daughter thought that by going to college, we would probably sell them and probably hang around doing nothing, but by then I was already hooked,” said Carlisle, who lives on the owned for 31 years with her. husband. “I had a lot of friends at the sheep shows. I just continued. The cows are gone; I have more sheep. It went from three to 300.
Her husband is a full-time farmer. The Delaware-native duo also grow crops on the farm and lease an additional 250 acres to neighboring private entities along Hartford Road. They grow hay, corn, wheat, barley and soybeans, although hay is their main cash crop.
They have three grown children, two of whom live on site, as well as grandchildren, who sometimes help on the farm.
On a cool and windy Tuesday afternoon, Kenneth Carlisle maneuvered a tractor over the property, first cleaning the top of a huge bin of corn fodder, then loading it into another bin.
“I worked for the Winners until the farm was sold and then we were lucky enough to be able to rent it to the county at that point,” he said. “Most people would find it (farming) pretty boring because it’s the same thing. It’s the same thing, but it’s always different. Two years are never the same. But you don’t have to look for something to do, that’s for sure.
“The other thing is seasonal, unlike when we milk the cows, it was every day. Not that we don’t miss that sometimes. At our age now, we would hate to come back to that.
Food and agriculture is New Jersey’s third-largest industry, behind pharmaceuticals and tourism, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which states that in 2015, “the more than 9,000 farms in the state generated cash receipts of approximately $ 1 billion ”. State farms cover 720,000 acres.
In 2015 and 2016, the state was No. 5 nationally in market lamb and mutton production.
Charlene Carlisle said the ethnic and cultural diversity of the state and southern region of Jersey where they live makes lamb meat a popular item.
“We raise and sell breeding cattle. I sell at the farmers market, stores, restaurants. I made wool in blankets, in thread. I have skins transformed into machine washable skins, ”she said.
An intensive care nurse at Virtua Voorhees, Carlisle works nights so that she can be available during the day to help out on the farm, where she mainly looks after the sheep.
“It’s not like milking cows,” she says. “You don’t have to get up at 4:00 am, but you get up at 6:30 am or 7:00 am. My husband is a full-time farmer. He has a lot to do. He has crops. I’m not really doing this unless he needs help.
Carlisle said the farm has award-winning sheep and estimates it attends one sheep show per month in states such as New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana.
“I’m thinking of showing off as a marketing thing to keep your name on there,” she said. “If you’re doing well, people want to buy your breeding stock. I keep my name on farmers’ markets and restaurants. I try to get all the niche markets that I can.
The Carlisles breed the Romney sheep, a long-wool breed native to England.
Carlisle said a sheep can produce five or six pounds of wool per year, although rams can produce 10 to 15 pounds. A team of two people come to shear them twice a year for their wool.
She said that when sheep have babies, twins are the norm, although they get singles and triplets. This year Little Hooves had 180 lambs born on their farm between February and October.
“There are people who are very concerned about their living conditions and the way they are being treated, but I always assure everyone that they are treated very well,” she said.
“We have been very well received in Burlington County. The people of the county love us, the families love us. I let people go upstairs, I take them for a walk.
Kenneth Carlisle said that while their kids have careers of their own and have no interest in cultivating full-time, “there are times when everyone is here and it’s kind of the best.”
Celeste E. Whittaker; @cp_CWhittaker; 856-486-2437; [email protected]