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Tennessee sisters finding fun raising sheep as 4-H projects


CHAPEL HILL, Tenn. — Thirteen-year-old Aliyah Blackburn does well in science but she struggles a bit with math. Her kid sister, 11-year-old Kinsleigh, excels at math but is challenged by science.

Aliyah hopes to apply her love of science to a career as a veterinarian. Kinsleigh thinks she might become a middle school math teacher.

The sisters may be at polar opposites with their academic skills, but they are perfectly aligned when it comes to their new family activity: raising and showing sheep.

It’s been two years since the Blackburn girls received their first sheep and their dad and mom, Neal and Robin, are right along with them. (It’s too early to tell if their infant sister, Jaley, will also be into livestock.) Neal makes his living raising chickens for Tyson, but he’s looking to diversify the family farm with sheep.

“We’re going to ramp up sheep production,” he said.

Raising sheep has the potential to earn the family income, but also, through the girls’ involvement in 4-H and going to livestock shows around Tennessee, the family travels together (a “farmer’s vacation”) and make friends.

“It’s amazing how you connect with people,” in 4-H and at livestock shows, Neal said. “It’s like an extended family.”

“We’ve made a lot of good friends over the last year,” Robin agreed.

The Blackburn family has been to shows in Knoxville, Nashville, and Lebanon – “wherever our budget will allow,” Neal pointed out. They’re at shows nearly every weekend during the show season; they plan to go in November to the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky.

The travel and showing is one of the main attractions for the girls. “I like going places and showing them and training them to show,” Aliyah said.

The Blackburn family is also part of a movement to revive an endangered breed of sheep: Tunis. The Tunis was imported to the United States in 1799, a gift to George Washington. The breed originated in the northern Africa country of Tunisia.

It is well-suited to a hot climate and flourished in the U.S. in the Mid-Atlantic and southern states. The breed was nearly wiped out during the Civil War; the only surviving flock in the South was rescued by a South Carolinian who hid them along the Congaree River near Columbia.

The Blackburns got their first sheep two years ago from retired Bedford County Extension Agent David Gordon. He provided them with Katahdin, a breed developed in the 1950s in Maine. “He just loves getting kids involved,” Neal said.

The “extended family” effect, integral with 4-H livestock showing, started the Blackburns on the Tunis breed. At a show in Lebanon, Kinsleigh and Aliyah spotted Tunis sheep owned by Randy and Lynette Powley from Loudon. The Powleys were looking to retire from the sheep business and the Blackburns were aiming to get into it.

The Powleys offered to sell sheep to the Blackburns at well below market price. But the sale was about much more than the price. It was in keeping with the family-like friendships that are part of the livestock community.

When asked about the personality of the Tunis, Aliyah summed it up with two words: “They’re sweet. They just want you to pet them all the time, they’re nice.”

In the girl’s small flock of sheep, however, there is one exception: Peanut. Male sheep are called rams; females are called ewes. And it seems Peanut lives up to the literalness of his gender label.

“He’s a bad sheep,” explained Kinsleigh. “He will butt you.”

When asked if livestock will always be part of their lives, the sisters say yes. Aliyah, who plans to be a veterinarian, is sure she’ll have livestock but she’s not inclined, as so many young girls are, toward horses. “I like cows,” she said emphatically.

When she's not teaching, Kinsleigh intends to raise sheep and dogs, as an adult.