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Clearing the land and adding some sheep

Jeff and Jan Jaqua’s sheep date back thousands of years. Their farm, called Drumcliffe, is only 6 years old.

The 9 acres out on Terra Fern Road, just east of town, was wild forest when the Jaquas bought it in 2005. Jeff, about to retire as an archaeologist with the forest service, and Jan, a retired elementary school principal and administrator with Estacada School District, had plans to transform the land into a proper farm.by: POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - Jeff Jaqua holds Chong, the newest Jacob sheep at Drumcliffe Farm east of Sandy.

“We’ve always had a dream to live out here and keep animals and be responsible for a piece of land,” Jeff says.

While still working for the forest service, Jeff would swing by the land after work each day in that first year and spend a little time clearing brush. From what he tells, there was a lot of it to clear.

“I bought a tractor, but I had no idea what (kind of land) I’d bought,” he says. “I told the guy who sold me the tractor, ‘If you can drive it out to the back of the land and turn around and make it back up, then I’ll buy it.”

As the story goes, he did make it back up, and Jeff bought the tractor. His wife spins more of the brush-clearing yarn, talking about being afraid for her husband’s safety.

“He would drive the tractor out there and just go down into the brush, and I would just pray that he would come back up,” Jan says.

Today, the 9 acres are clear, there’s a barn and a large home, and pastures where Jacob sheep graze, guarded by a 9-foot-tall llama named Maribel. Apparently, llamas are extremely protective of any type of herd for which they are given charge.

“They’re not my sheep, they’re hers,” Jeff says.

Jacob sheep, which have their origins in the Middle East, are not common. They’re smaller, spotted, and much hardier, according to Jeff.

“They’re a primitive breed,” he says. “There are a number of folks who believe it’s important to preserve that gene pool.”

Their name comes from the story of Jacob in the Bible. Given the choice between a small flock of large white sheep and a large flock of the spotted, smaller ones, Jacob chose the spotted sheep.

The Jaquas chose the Jacob sheep for a few reasons: to help preserve the breed, and also because the sheep, having not been compromised by cross breeding, retain a resiliency and resistance to disease. Also, Jeff says, their fleece is high quality.

“They have a quality of fleece that hand spinners just love,” he says. “But they have no commercial value because of the multicolor.”

Still, once processed, the fleece is sought after by the hand spinning set — those people who buy the wool and make garments by hand. The Jaquas sell a lot of the raw fleece and fetch $12 to $16 a pound for it, and have become regulars at the Gresham Farmers Market.

“The Jacobs have a really wide range of micron count,” Jan says, describing the levels of density spinner look for. “The levels of micron count don’t mean quality, but purpose,” she says. “You might use a finer wool for a nice, thin hat, but the thicker stuff for a nice sweater.”

Beyond the fleece, the Jaquas sell the sheep for food, with customers buying racks and mutton, especially during the holiday season. This, Jeff says, is part of an emerging trend.

“People more and more are interested in knowing where their food comes from,” he says. “I was just reading an article that was talking about how the next trend for reality shows could be celebrity farmers. My friends joke that I’ll be one of them.”

In this regard, the Jaquas are in good company. There’s a small group here that have made it their life to build a little piece of land into a working niche farm, and one annual event out at Drumcliffe points to the celebrity aspect becoming a reality. Each February the Jaquas hold a shearing party, where all are invited to come out and watch, help and enjoy the spectacle of harvesting the wool from all the Jacobs. What was expected to be a small gathering has grown to near epic proportions.

“The first year we had about 10 people,” Jan says, “and now we have about 120 each year.”

Jan says she started out with plates of light snacks, but now she needs to enlist help to run the kitchen.

“I try to get people to go to work,” she says. “A lot of them help out at the gates or in the kitchen, but some of them just like to hang out.”

The Jaquas not only enjoy the farm and the parties, they are students of all things fleece. Jan spins the yarn with a wheel in her home while Jeff processes the wool to make batts for sale, or for Jan to use. The couple also traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2008 to learn natural dying techniques from a teacher there. Their pilgrimage took them to remote locations late at night, and the adventure gave them a keen understanding of indigenous methods for processing wool.

“One thing he taught us, and it’s so obvious, is that natural dyes can be contrasting colors, but they blend together very nicely,” Jeff says.

The Jaquas also blend some of their wool with llama fiber (when Maribel allows it).

Given the turnout for the shearing parties each winter, it is entirely possible we could see the Jaquas and their contemporaries on the small screen in the near future.