#AgLife: Rambouillets and Sugar – Jennings Farms

    There may be life off the ranch, but any Fremont County farmer or rancher will tell you – The #aglife is “the good life!” #Aglife is a County 10 series, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, that pulls the curtain back on farm and ranch life in Fremont County.

    They communicated by hand signals and nods as they systematically loaded the International Harvester feed truck with precision scoops of custom ground corn and alfalfa from the Caterpillar 946G loader. It was just another morning ritual for Bill Jennings and his hired man Juan on the family farm north of Riverton.

    Juan depositing a dusty mix of corn and alfalfa to an International feed truck driven by Bill Jennings – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    Bill and Malissa represent the third generation of the Jennings family to farm the area three miles from the Riverton city limits.

    Founded in 1939 by Bill’s grandparents Charles and Anne Jennings on an original 160-acre homestead, the operation grew with his parents Gary and Colleen into the present 800-acre farm.

    Malissa and Bill Jennings – {h/t Jennings Family Photo}

    Jennings Farms has a unique agricultural niche in Fremont County. They raise corn, alfalfa, beets, and Rambouillet sheep.

    Of the four, beets are often the most fickle, with their dependence on the frost to refrain from nipping the sprouting beets in late spring and relying on that same early autumn version of frost to hit hard enough to drive the sugar into the beets. It’s the sugar that determines the market value of a beet harvest.

    Feed auguring into bunks – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    Bill’s father was renowned for getting his beets out of the field first for generations, no matter the field conditions. In the early days of the beet harvest, trucks left the field and headed directly to Worland, an 85-mile one way trek. Later, receiving stations on 10 Mile Hill halfway to Shoshoni and the Midvale Station at the intersection of Missouri Valley and 8 Mile Road cut the transit time from the field to more manageable distances, but the prices and politics of beet harvesting remain a problem for the Jennings operation and the few remaining beet producers in Fremont County.

    Cokeville sheep being fed on the Jennings Farm – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    Malissa is originally from Indiana and found her way to Wyoming as a fifth grader with her father who was a mining demolition man, working with explosives.

    It was in Casper that she met Bill a decade or so later.

    Riverton High School SRO Charlie Marshall lived next door to Malissa in Casper, and Bill and Charlie were high school friends.

    On a visit to see Charlie, Bill walked outside in his boxer shorts and a pair of cowboy boots to get the paper one morning and Malissa was outside.

    “Around here we wear clothes,” Malissa said. It was their first conversation.

    Left to right: Josh and Sarah Nelson with their children Parker, Hensley, and Nash. The Jennings children Sarah, Katelyn, Andrew, and Abigail and Jason and Sarah Thoren – {h/t Jennings Family Photos}

    The couple has been married for 26 years, and have three adult children, and Abigail, a junior at Shoshoni High School.

    Sarah is the oldest, married to Josh Nelson of Lander. Katelyn married Jason Thoren, a fellow Shoshoni High School student, and they live in Ten Sleep where Jason is a teacher and Sarah is caring for their infant son Huxton.

    United States Marine Corps Corporal Andrew Jennings {Jennings Family Photo}

    Andrew is another Wrangler graduate and has just returned from an enlistment in the US Marine Corps. He is working on the farm a bit, but just started a job in the shop at Brown Company a couple of miles from the farm.

    They have four grandchildren, Parker, Hensley and Nash Nelson, and Huxton.

    An aerial photo of the Jennings farm in 1956 – {h/t Jennings Family Photo}

    The Jennings farm grew from the original 160 acres worked by grandpa Charles to include the “Highway Place” a well-known 208-acre parcel north of Stotz Equipment along the Shoshoni Highway, with another 160-acre purchase of the “Applehans Place” in 1978, and 80 acres bought by Gary from Don Bracken.

    Bill and Malissa added a final 200-acre parcel purchased from Richard Haun to round out the operation.

    “We have a total of about 800 acres, but we’re farming 600,” Bill said. “I can make better decisions with fewer acres.”

    They grow their own alfalfa and corn to feed lambs and have reduced the beet acreage over time.

    Juan drives a load of feed toward the feed truck – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    “If you’re not being led by the best and brightest, you’ll go down in flames,” Bill said.

    Becoming the best and brightest requires education, and both Bill and Gary earned agricultural degrees from the University of Wyoming. Gary’s in Agricultural Education and Bill’s a BS in Agriculture and also an MS with his thesis on the operation of the nematode in beets under the direction of Dr. Held.

    A common professor to both father and son was the late Dr. Conrad Kercher in his Feeds and Feeding class.

    “I held it over dad that I got an A in the class, and he didn’t,” Bill said.

    Corn catches the sunlight as it falls from the loader bucket. Note the digital scale weighing each load – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    Bill originally studied to become an engineer, but the process of leaving home to get a college education is often a way of clarifying your future, it was with Bill.

    “The more I tried to get away from it, the more I was drawn back,” he said.

    That education comes into play when it’s time to mix feed for lambs.

    They grind 3×4 alfalfa bales with corn to create a ration for lambs, a process that Bill and his hired hands of Moises, Juan, and Antony have to do every four days throughout the long winter. Once the grain and hay are mixed they store it in open-faced, south-facing, concrete sheds and load the feed truck each time to deliver daily feedings to their three large sheep pens.

    Sheep feeding after the morning alfalfa corn mix is deposited – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    Moises, Juan, and Antony are Peruvians, working on the farm through the H2A program. They have work Visas that allow them to work in the US for up to 10 months before returning to Peru.

    “They spend holidays with us, they celebrate birthdays, they’ve become part of our family,” Malissa said.

    Moises has been on the farm for 16 years, the longest of the three.

    “They loved Abby when she was little,” Malissa said. “They’d take her with them on chores and on hot summer days they’d swim in the canal to cool off, she loved it too.”

    Two of the Peruvian workers are on site presently.

    “They’ve been top shelf all the way,” Bill said.

    The Jennings homestead has grown into more of a compound with three homes on the property. Colleen lives on the east side of Jennings Road, a north south road connecting with Haymaker Road and Young Road that divides the property.

    Bill and Malissa’s home and the home for the three workers is just across the way to the west.

    Every aspect of agriculture is a high risk, with weather, insects, and market trends combining to make production, and profit a gamble in the best of situations.

    A black goat declares “King of the Mountain” of Colleen Jenning’s herd – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    Currently, they have 350 ewes and 85 yearling ewes. They begin breeding ewes when they’re two years old. They also have a small herd of Angora and Nubian goats that Colleen uses for wool.

    Colleen is well known for her knitting and high-quality woolen apparel and has been a prominent supporter of 4H and FFA for generations. But, goats are a different breed, and their ability to climb almost any barrier, and eat just about everything is sometimes a challenge.

    Colleen also has 15 to 20 head of colored sheep she shears for knitting. They stand out amid the white Rambouillet sheep in the pen.

    Pretty and Mr. Icky, two of the four Akbash Pyrenees guarding the sheep pens – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    With sheep, predators are a constant threat. Coyotes are the main concern, but fox can take young lambs, as can feral dogs, and even eagles.

    The defense team at the Jennings farm is deceptive. They have four Akbash Pyrenees dogs, with Z, an Australian Shepherd / Border Collie mix, and Winnie another collie/shepherd mix that is the most aggressive of them all, along with Sam a sister to Z.  

    Z the sheep herding champion reputed to occasionally run on the backs of reluctant sheep – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    The Akbash Pyrenees are massive, solid white dogs with a double coat of fur that makes them perfectly adapted to Wyoming’s harsh winter climate. They are docile to humans but can frighten visitors by standing on all fours and looking into the windows of smaller vehicles. They’re deadly to coyotes and great intimidators.

    The most interesting member of the defense team isn’t a dog, but a donkey. At first glance, Clementine looks like a gigantic version of the Rambouillet ewes she protects with nearly identical coloring.

    Currently, there are just over 2,000 sheep in the three main pens. They are feeding 1420 head for John Child of Cokeville this winter.

    Clementine blends in with the ewes is a greatet predator deterrent – {h/t Randy Tucker}

    The flock arrived in three semi-trailers last fall and takes the most time for Bill and his crew to feed each day.

    The strength of the agricultural community, some would call it magic, is the connection that people have with each other. It often comes from unexpected sources.

    “When Gary passed away, Hearley Dockham stepped up to help us,” Malissa said. “He and Marvin Schmidt were there for Bill.”

    The late Hearley Dockham was one of the established sheepmen of Fremont County, and Marvin Schmidt still raises sheep on his place west of Ocean Lake.

    The late Kitty Peck was also instrumental in getting the girls interested in fiber and wool at the Fremont County Fair.

    “Colleen has Nubian, Angora, and mixed-breed goats that came from Kitty,” Malissa said.

    Bill and Abigail Jennings vaccinating with Colleen Jennings – {h/t Jennings Family Photo}

    The family farm is rapidly becoming a relic from another age, a passage that will leave the world of rural America a weaker, less community-oriented place, but for the Jennings family, it continues to prosper as long as the sun shines and there is ample water in the ditch.

    It has been a growing operation for 84 years now since Charles and Ann decided to move from sunny California to the challenges of Fremont County. Little did they know what they started on their trek east. That trek had a brief pause in Utah, where Gary was born when Anne went into labor on the journey, but now the Wyoming roots are firmly planted.

    Colleen Jennings with her grandchildren and their spouses – {h/t Jennings Family Photo}

    Who will take over the farm when Bill and Malissa decide to retire remains a question, but for now, the sheep need to be fed, and in a few months the corn and beets need to be planted, cultivated, and irrigated, the alfalfa needs watered, cut and baled and life goes on.

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