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Breaking Away From The Flock

Grant Gerlock
Harvest Public Media

Rhonda McClure seems to approach farming with a homesteader’s resourcefulness, but she adds her own modern flair.

McClure and her husband Don sell fleece and home spun yarn across the country. But Rhonda is also a quilter and fiber artist who uses the wool in her own creations.

McClure often has gone a different direction than the rest of the flock. In the 1970s she was one of just a handful of women attending ag classes at the University of Nebraska. Today, the small McClure sheep farm is an uncommon neighbor to corn and soybean fields.

If McClure is comfortable going her own way, perhaps it’s because she carries a strong heritage of homesteading women. She told me about growing up on a farm near Comstock, Neb., and being disappointed when the bulk of the outdoor chores went to her brother.

“My dad once said that I was a lot like (Great-) Grandma Shanks,” McClure said. “That I was more likely to be out working with the men and doing that sort of thing, at a time when that wasn’t necessarily a compliment. So I credit that I get a lot of my spunk probably from her and the ones before me.”

Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
McClure and her husband, Don, sell raw wool and homespun yarn across the country.

McClure has traced her branch of farming women back to her Great-Great Grandmother Shanks, a mother of 17, who came to Comstock in 1886 with her husband.

“They later moved to up by Alliance (Neb.) where they homesteaded,” McClure told me. “He died a year later so she maintained a widow’s homestead up there with her children, long enough to claim the homestead, at least.”

That story and others are only a recent revelation to McClure. Perhaps it’s part of growing older, she said, but it makes her connection to the farm and her sheep even stronger.

“It’s interesting that a lot of families have stories, but there were some I was never told,” McClure said. “I wasn’t aware until I started asking questions, trying to piece together who these relatives were.”

McClure explained the wool business to me as we walked past a tall, red barn on her small farm near Wahoo, Neb. Dozens of ewes flocked toward us and clamored for a position near the fence, bleating into my microphone and reaching for a taste of the hay pile on the other side. Dolly, a black and white border collie rescue, skittered along the fence anxiously. Some of the sheep wore covers, like sheep robes, to keep their valuable wool free of dirt and debris.

“I raise the sheep so I know the product from the time the sheep is born until the time I have the artwork in my hand,” McClure said. “There’s a special connection I have to my stuff.”

Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
McClure works with her wool from start to finish, from ewe to finished art project.

On a piano inside a century-old farm house stand some of McClure’s prized wool sculptures, made by a technique called needle felting. There was a fuzzy Hereford bull, a boy proudly standing next to his black lamb and a girl standing with her pony’s head in her hands. In another room, McClure’s studio, with piles of multicolored wool like puffy clouds plucked from sunsets.

McClure said her artistic inspiration comes from her relationship with the animals and the wool, and, more and more in recent times, from the women who have passed down a sense of the rewards of a hard day’s work.

This is the seventh installment of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. Click here to explore more My Farm Roots stories and to share your own.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

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