Making Sheep Dreams Real At Stoney Hill Farms, Volga, SD

The fellow in this picture is Mark Pates — one of my big brothers.

Like me, Mark grew up in the town of Brookings, S.D., a “town kid” and a son to a very earnest South Dakota State University Extension Service worker.   Unlike me, Mark had a personal vision for becoming an actual farmer — not just writing about them.

Mark and his twin brother, Matthew, worked on farms as a kid, mostly doing custom bale-throwing. “The twins” were in a 4-H club that specialized in small engine projects. After high school, they together went to Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D., where Mark studied diesel mechanics and Matt took auto mechanics. Both worked on a dairy farm while going to school. After graduation, Mark worked at implement dealerships in eastern South Dakota.

Working in the Brookings area, Mark connected with a farmer’s daughter named Phyllis.  They were married in 1978 and he worked in a diversified operation with her family. After specializing in the dairy part of the business, Mark eventually took a job at the Rental Depot in town, but continued to live on the farmstead where their children, Kari and Kevin, had 4-H projects, showed sheep.

Mark continued to expand a sheep operation and today Stoney Hill Farms has about 190 ewes. They market about 140 to 160 lambs a year, depending on how many they keep back.  Mark and Phyllis work on the sheep business in concert with their son, Kevin (wife, Courtney) who lives at the west end of the section and works at the South Dakota Soybean Processors at Volga. Kari, has a career in Pierre, S.D., but is a part-owner of some of the sheep and is a strong supporter.

The reason I bring this up is that the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association held their 78th Annual Convention at Rapid City, S.D. On Sept. 26 the SDSGA recognized Stoney Hill Farms with a “Master Lamb Producer” award. Mark’s family was honored in “Lamb to Finish Producer” category.  All five of them were there for the recognition program, all wearing the “Stoney Hill Farm” logo.

Jeff Held, the SDSU Extension sheep specialist and professor, evaluated the nominees.  . Among the positive features about Mark’s operation is that they contract-sell their lambs to Superior Farms, Inc., of Oregon, with processing in California and Colorado. Among other things, Mark’s place is designed for efficient for beneficial control of lamb market weight.

“You have two generations, here,” Held told me about why he recommended Stoney Hill Farms for the award. “I like to see that,” Held says. “They’ve grown it from a small enterprise. They’ve set it up to match their work and lifestyle,” Held says. He says Stoney Hill is set up to lamb in the winter time, but so the ewes are well-protected when no one is at home to watch them. They’ve joined the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program at Pipestone, Minn. Through that affiliation, they’re able to contract lambs. The information collected from the harvest sheet gives the Pateses more direction on genetics and feeding management.”

The sheep industry seems a perfect fit for Mark, and could be for a lot of people,  Held says.

“It’s an opportunity to participate in agriculture,” Held says. “You’re engaged in the industry.” Sheep respond more to management than any other species, and Held sees that former dairy people like Mark are well suited for the enterprise.

Mark sells lambs through Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program, hosted at the Minnesota West Community and Technical College at Pipestone, Minn. Collectively, growers that participate in the classes and market some 30,000 lambs on contract with packers, based on negotiating for prices and terms. The current contract is with Superior Farms, Inc., based in Oregon, but with processing facilities in California and Colorado.

Stoney Hill wasn’t the only honoree at the convention.

Brink Hampshires of Redfield, S.D., owned by Michel and Betty Brink, won in the “purebred” producer, category, along with Jon and Theresa Beastrom of Beastrom Targhees of Pierre, S.D. Reese Clarkson of Clarkson Livestock at Buffalo, S.D., won in the feeder lamb producer category.

Congratulations to them all, but here’s a special tip of the hat to my brother, Mark — a great example as a husband and father, and man that makes his dreams come true. I’m glad he won a lamb award because the old Norwegian isn’t likely to win one for communication. I heard about the award through brother Matt. When we got together, recently, Mark didn’t bring it up.

“So, I hear you won an what did you get an award for?” I said, as he flipped a nice piece of meat on the grill for my supper, the other evening.

“Oh, I guess they say I’m a master lamb producer,” Mark replied, not particularly anxious to elaborate. It was up to me to draw out the details. That’s my role.

We all have our roles in the family, I suppose.