ALSEA, Ore. — The inception of Leaping Lamb Farm was far from auspicious for novice sheep producer Scottie Jones.
Upon moving to damp rural Oregon from dry metropolitan Arizona in 2003 with her husband, Greg, Jones seemed to encounter disaster at every turn.
“Things just fell apart,” she said.
Fences, irrigation equipment and farm machinery constantly broke down while the sheep had trouble birthing lambs, leading Jones to question whether they’d gotten in over their heads when buying the 44-acre farm near Alsea, Ore.
“Quite honestly, it was a mid-life crisis,” she said. “We were naive and idealistic. If we’d known a lot more, we probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Knowing full well that the couple’s friends in Phoenix were taking bets on how soon they’d give up and move back, Jones vowed not to quit.
With the help of neighbors and Oregon State University Extension agents, Leaping Lamb Farm gradually found its legs.
Much like the pioneers who traversed the Oregon Trail, Jones said she may have underestimated the challenges lying ahead, but she does not regret the venture.
The couple bought more land, expanding to 67 acres, and sold lambs both directly to consumers and to larger sheep producers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Due to the paltry wool market, Jones also switched to raising hair sheep — specifically a cross between Katahdin and Dorper breeds — which had fewer birthing problems and better resistance to parasites, she said.
Even as she fine-tuned the operation, though, the farm was just breaking even financially.
Since farm chores kept her tied to the property, Jones decided to make the operation more profitable by starting a side business on-site.
“If I’m not going to leave the farm, what can I do?” she said.
Since she’d never been shy about socializing with strangers and was familiar with the concept of on-farm lodgings in Europe, Jones decided to open her property to overnight visitors.
Jones admits that her business plan for offering “farm stays” amounted to little more than “build it and they will come.”
Although her strategy was rather vague, that’s exactly what happened.
After Jones obtained a conditional use permit from the county government and launched a website in 2006, Leaping Lamb Farm was mentioned in four paragraphs of a Sunset magazine story on agritourism.
Despite the brevity of the reference, it nonetheless spurred public interest and further media attention.
An article mentioning Leaping Lamb Farm in a “foodie” magazine caught the attention of Kim Hall, a resident of Portland, Ore., who wanted to teach her four-year-old daughter about agriculture.
“I will probably never own a farm myself, so it was an opportunity to see what that’s like,” Hall said.
Over the past six years, Hall and her daughter, now 10, have repeatedly returned to Leaping Lamb Farm during different seasons.
The experience has changed as her daughter has grown older and become interested in new things, she said. “It’s always a different adventure.”
Lisa Peters, another Portland resident, has been coming back to the farm for three years with her two sons, now aged 13 and 15.
“It was magical,” she said, noting that they’ve pitched in with feeding the animals and distributing hay. “I don’t know how well we did at any of the tasks.”
Leaping Lamb Farms appeals mostly to families, as well as people who are thinking of leaving behind other careers to start farms, said Jones.
Visitors commonly help with chores such as collecting eggs and cleaning stalls, but some even assist with tail docking, ear tagging and castration duties.
“If you want to help, that’s great,” she said. “If you don’t want to help, that’s fine, you’re paying to be here.” Roughly 60 percent of the farm’s guest come from the Portland area, while the rest generally live along the West Coast.
The “farm stays” eventually became so popular that Jones had to turn away guests, steering them to other farms that offer overnight lodgings.
Those references led her to another project, the U.S. Farm Stay Association, which provides information about roughly 900 other farms that offer overnight lodgings across the country.
Jones created a website for the nonprofit association, also known as Farm Stay U.S., which is sustained by about 133 paying members who are allowed to display additional information and photos.
Farm stays appeal to consumers because the property is an attraction, not just a place to sleep, like a hotel, Jones said.
“A lot of people think they’re going to go places, but they don’t go anywhere because there’s enough to do here,” she said.
Leaping Lamb Farm
Owners: Scottie and Greg Jones
Hometown: Alsea, Ore.
Purpose: Raising lambs while providing lodgings to agritourists
Family: The couple has two grown daughters
Ages: Scottie is 63, Greg is 66
Education: Scottie earned a master’s degree in medieval archeology from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1980 and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix in 2003. Greg obtained a doctorate in psychology from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1978.