I met John Sheppard at the Kootenai County Farmer’s Market in Hayden on an unseasonably damp and chilly Saturday morning in September. John and his daughter Alexa were chatting with a steady stream of customers who stopped by their booth. Business was brisk, but John had graciously agreed to meet with me to answer a few questions about his business. We stopped away to a bench on the edge of the market, leaving Alexa in charge of the Sheppard Ranch booth.
How long have you owned Sheppard Ranch?
We have been in business about four years now. We were raising animals before that, but we formed the LLC and really started to treat it as a business about four years ago.
What made you decide to start the business?
The genesis of it all is that we just wanted something healthier. I like animals and we started raising them for ourselves. I had a previous business and it had done pretty well, and while I am not independently wealthy by any stretch, I was at a point where I was able to do what I wanted to do in life, as opposed to what I had to do. My main focus was that I wanted to be around my family more, to be around my children. I have been able to start the business and do it the way I wanted to do it, by focusing on quality.
What were you doing before?
I grew up in the Catskills of New York, and after graduating college, my girlfriend Christine (now my wife) and I drove out to San Diego. We were supposed to be there for a year tops, and I started a business that kind of took off, so within a year I had over 100 employees and I couldn’t just leave. After about 15 years we realized that if we didn’t leave then, we were never going to leave. The business was food service and amusement park rides, retail kiosks and that kind of thing. It was never supposed to be the end game, but just a transient thing. This is my end game here in North Idaho; I never wanted to be in a big city.
As you began your career as a farmer, what do you recall to be the most difficult thing to learn as part of your farm business and/or the farm lifestyle?
Nothing jumps out as any major thing. I find it is a series of little things that if you let build up can be overwhelming. For me the toughest thing is getting enough sleep. I think maybe the hardest thing was being able to pump the breaks and slow down a little. There is always something to do. There is a hierarchy of needs. At the very top are the animals. They always need to be cared for. Learning to take care of what has to be taken care of and being willing to let some of the other things slide a little bit was hard. I still wrestle with it. I have three little kids and they are the reason I am doing this business. If they are the reason, and I find that I am always working and never with my kids, then that is a losing proposition. I always try to keep things in perspective. The winters are challenging for sure, (raising animals in the winter) but our focus from the beginning was trying to pick animals that fit with the land, as opposed to trying to force what we wanted on to the land. For example, we don’t raise cattle because we are on a mountain and it is sloping and it would turn into a mud slide. The pigs we raise are more of a grazing pig.
You are very busy selling your products at the farmer’s markets during market season. As market season will be winding during the next month or so, how do you transition your business for the winter months?
For us it involves trying to set up systems to manage with the snow. Last winter everybody had snow, but the winter before that we had over 10 feet of snow. For us we have to set the animals up so that they can get to food and water. The pigs are outside year around. We do set up shelters for them so they can get to shelter when they want to. The issue is making sure they can get to food and water and as a consequence, moving the animals around so they can have all of their needs met.
What are your plans for the future of your business?
I am paring back on some things; we used to run three boars but I have changed that so we are down to a single boar. That may not sound like a huge difference, but keeping three boars separated in the winter can be a nightmare. We sell a lot of breed stock of our poultry, and we are focusing more on that. We are streamlining. We are not going anywhere and will continue to do what we have been doing, but we are doing things smarter.
Sheppard Ranch raises pigs, sheep and chickens. You can find information about their products by visiting their website: thesheppardranch.com
Interview by Juliana Anderson.