Young sheep rancher

Nick Sonka, who lost his father, Joe Sonka, to a fatal heart attack 12 years ago, has returned to run a sheep operation on his family's ranch near Myrtle Creek, Ore. Nick Sonka says he's always wanted to be a sheep rancher with hopes of partnering with his father. He's now working at it on his own with some help from other family members.

MYRTLE CREEK, Ore. — Nick Sonka is back on his family’s sheep ranch and is following in his father’s footsteps, but with a sad heart.

Nick, even at a young age, was looking ahead to working with and partnering with Joe Sonka on the ranch. But unexpectedly, Joe, at age 45, died of a heart attack in March of 2007.

Nick was only 11 at the time.

“It was a shock,” Nick, now 23, recalled of his dad’s death.

Nick had grown up on the ranch. On his first day home from the hospital after his birth, Nick was wrapped up and visited the sheep barn in a stroller. It wasn’t too much later that in his car seat, he went out with his dad in a four-wheeler to check on the family’s flock.

When there was a little too much activity for his young son, Joe put him in a round feeder “to keep him out of trouble,” recalled Sue Sonka, Nick’s mother.

After a few years, Nick was big enough to help move sheep around in the barn and out in the pastures. He was young, but he was his father’s right-hand man.

“My intention all along was to be a rancher,” Nick said. “I’ve known that since I was 3 or 4.”

Joe Sonka’s death, however, altered the sheep ranch’s operation. Nick, at 11, wasn’t old enough to take over although he wanted to and Sue Sonka had her own career as a nurse.

So the sheep were sold and the ranch’s pastures along the South Umpqua River were leased.

Nick finished his schooling at South Umpqua High School, graduating in 2014. He earned 39 college credits at South Umpqua and so was able to graduate three years later in 2017 from Oregon State University with a degree in animal science.

“Through all those years, I knew what I wanted to do,” Nick said of becoming a sheep rancher.

While attending college, he worked for the Wahl ranch, a sheep operation near Albany, Ore. Just like he had learned from his father, he continued to learn from Tony Wahl who has been in the sheep business since 1969. Wahl is optimistic the young sheep rancher will succeed in the industry.

“He’s willing to learn, he didn’t think he knew it all and was willing to put in the hours to work and learn,” Wahl said. “Whether it was a crummy job or a fun job he was willing to do both, and I tried to impart to him what I knew about the business side of ranching. I think Nick understood you had to know that, too.

“We need young people like Nick in the business,” he added.

After his OSU graduation and a year of work and experiences on the Wahl ranch, Nick decided it was time to return to the family ranch and run his own sheep operation. He took out a loan with Northwest Farm Credit Services and purchased about 500 young Suffolk and Dorset cross ewes from Wahl and from Ben Kokkeler of Junction City, Ore.

Some abortion issues and a late February snow storm impacted Nick’s lambing season, but he ended up with about 725 lambs.

“I’ve had to learn on my own, there’s been no hand holding,” he said. “Without dad, I’ve probably had to step up more than I would have. But I’m not doubting myself. I’ll do this until hell freezes over or until I run out of money. Then I’ll just work at a mill until I’ve saved enough money to start all over again.”

While Nick is pretty much a one-man operation, he does get occasional help from his mother, Sue Sonka, his sister, Jodi, when she comes home from her college classes, his grandmother Dorothy Austin and his grandfather Louis Sonka.

“I’m extremely proud of him,” Sue Sonka said. “He’s not afraid to work hard, he pays good attention to detail and he has his budget down to every needle and syringe. He has the love for this and it is what he wants to do. By sheer determination, he’ll be successful.”

As Nick goes through his work day out in the pasture, in the barn and in the shop, he remembers his father.

“He’s not here, but this is my way of getting to hang out with him, going to work on the ranch,” Nick said. “He’s watching and I know he’d get on my ass if I wasn’t working hard. I know that once I go up there, he’s going to talk to me so I better have my act together.”

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