By Andrea Cleghorn
Beautiful bittersweet chocolate sheep with white blazes kept finding their way into my social media during the spring of 2022, possibly from many clicks on all things Irish. The farmer at Black Sheep Farm encouraged scrutiny of life on her Kilkenny farm, including the exploits of Ovenmitt the Cat, Ebony the Ewe (pronounced Yo), and Bear the Dog, a mixed-breed legit sheepdog.
With its stone buildings, wildflowers, and a calm, friendly narrative delivered in a slightly American, partly Irish voice, Black Sheep Farm seemed a worthy destination to include in a July trip to Ireland. It all looked like great fun to stop by and pay a visit.
The farmer granted our request immediately and a visit was confirmed. The farmyard was at the end of a short lane, and the entire vista was a child’s vision of what every farm should be. The farmer was, too, in her pink shirt, and holding a fistful of just-picked sweet peas to welcome us.
It must have been the hottest day of the summer of ’22 as my Irish friends Marion and Gerry and I joined farmer and shepherd, Suzanna Crampton, on a walking tour of her farm. Gerry was left to keep his border collie Millie entertained while the rest of us set off. The walk ended in an apple orchard.
We learned a lot about the farmer’s theories of soil regeneration, producing nourishing food for humans and beasts, and heard discouraging news of the watering-down of standards for the “organic” designation.
“My farm is more organic than 90 percent of the farms in Ireland,” she said, pointing out the trees that produced apples for cooking and those for eating.
From the orchard, we traversed an area cultivated with incredible flowers with a seating area around a well-used fire pit. The stone walls were restored over 15 years. The farmer said, “A retired man came to help me. He still comes back and does a bit of stonework. He is on retirement now, doesn’t charge high wages, it works out for both of us.”
We were accompanied by four dogs of varying sizes, who went through the gates with us or sneaked under them. We strolled the land, Suzanna yelling at the dogs to avoid mischief. “No, Bear, that’s a fox!” We hadn’t gotten far when a huge black head loomed in my viewfinder. It was an alpaca, whose job on the farm is to chase strange dogs and foxes (and perhaps cameras) off the property.
As we walked, we heard Suzanna’s story. She had spent the first few years of her life in New York City. At the age of five, she and her slightly older sister were put on a plane in early summer, each wearing a cardboard sign with their names and destination. Their mother buckled them into their seats, kissed them goodbye, and the little girls landed at Shannon Airport where their grandparents picked them up. In the fall, their mother flew over from the States, had a few-week visit with her Irish parents, and took the girls home.
Suzanna loved the farm and earned her keep, picking raspberries until she had reached her daily quota. Then she could play with the animals, explore the fields, and have a grand time. Every Saturday, the girls went to the local farmers’ market with their grandfather, who sold produce out of the “boot” of his car, including carefully wrapped bouquets from their grandmother’s flower garden.
School years were spent in Virginia with summers in Kilkenny until Suzanna was 17 when she began to study agriculture and sustainable farming at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. By the age of 18, she had decided against having a family or a 9 to 5 job. She wanted to grow things and work with animals. “I may work 18 hours a day at times,” she said, “but I don’t have the confinement of a rigid schedule.”
After college, Suzanna held various jobs, some in Ireland with animals, some working on neighboring farms, venturing into acting classes in New York for a time, and doing some modeling. She went to London and worked for a wildlife charity that sent her to Malaysia where she contracted a tropical disease that left her bedridden and needing to live with her parents for three years. “I couldn’t listen to the radio or watch TV – nothing except stare at a crack in the ceiling over my bed, making up stories about it.”
When she was mostly recovered, her grandmother died. Suzanna convinced her mother to let her take on the farm, and in 1997, she moved to Ireland. She wanted to make the farm self-sufficient, growing healthy feed for the flock of sheep she developed from a handful of bottle-fed lambs. Because of the farm’s modest size (50 acres, with a good portion leased out), she was advised to put her efforts into a rare breed. After a time, she introduced the Zwartbles – “Zwart” meaning black and “bles” for their near-black color and white blaze
On our walk, we admired the sheep from a distance. Due to the heat, she asked us not to excite the dozens sleeping or in slow motion under the shade of an enormous oak tree. She explained that Zwartbles, with their congenial personalities, would normally greet visitors and that when she was writing her book Bodacious, The Shepherd Cat, “I took my laptop, and sat under a tree with Bodacious and the sheep gathered around us.” The book became a best-seller in Ireland, published by HarperCollins in 2018 and translated into four languages.
When Suzanna took over the farm, the gardens had been neglected for 20 years as her grandparents aged. The sheep helped to clear the brambles, troublesome briars, and thistles taller than her head. “I uncovered strawberries, leeks, chives, loads of fruit. The land healed me.”
Under the brambles, Suzanna discovered different grasses and collected seeds. There was salad burnet, scabiosa, varied vetches, St. John’s Wort, birdsfoot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw – and 240 species of dandelions.
In the beginning, she did a bit of foraging, tackling projects as she was able. She taught photography in Bennettsbridge and nearby Kilkenny City; she added chickens and horses; renovated outbuildings; and became the eighth generation of her family to live in the farmhouse.
One of the highlights of the tour was Suzanna’s wool studio in a stone cottage. It held a collection of Zwartbles photographs, a rack of ribbons earned by her prize-winning sheep, and hand-crafted objects made from their wool. Suzanna designed a handsome blanket with white stripes of various widths, signifying the Zwartbles’ blaze, on a dark field that was selected by Irish President Michael Higgins as a gift for official visitors.
We asked about lambing season. “I do all the lambing, but I have people come in to help so it’s all I do. Friends take care of me, including making sure I get fed. One loves to come and doesn’t know anything about sheep but she can identify a ewe in distress so she fetches me when needed.”
We passed three cherry trees. “This is my favorite time of year to do a taste test,” Suzanna said. The identical trees were planted close to each other, but in radically different soil. Each produced a striking variation in taste – from grimace-producing tart, to mild, to lusciously sweet.
Suzanna’s goal has always been to make Black Sheep Farm self-sufficient with healthy feed for the animals and vegetables for herself. She thinks of sustainable farming as regenerative and renewable and has, over time, accomplished that.
When asked to sum up her life, she says, “I wake up every morning not knowing what the day will bring, even if I have a plan! If I had to think of one word it would be fulfilling.”
With that, she goes on to welcome the first lamb of the spring, this St. Patrick’s Day week. She hopes the number will climb to 21 by the end of the month.
For more information on Suzanna Crampton, check out her website, www.zwartblesireland.com; Instagram, zwartblesireland; or YouTube, @suzannaCramptonIreland.
Andrea Cleghorn produces “Dispatches from Ireland” for both The Bedford Citizen and Bedford TV.