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Midwives Flock to Lambing Time

Rancher schools city slickers in rural life; they help her with pregnant ewes. 'You certainly can't worry about getting dirty,' one says.

May 04, 2003|Becky Bohrer | Associated Press Writer

EDGAR, Mont. — Andrea Clark stumbles from a bed she's barely slept in, wearing the smelly jeans and shirt she had on just a few hours earlier, to do a job she's paying to do.

"Let's go check for babies," Clark, 32, tells her mother as they make their way to the nearby corrals and hundreds of pregnant sheep.

It's 2 a.m. The air is crisp and the women are tired. But if they came to Pachy Burns' ranch hoping to be pampered or to spend relaxing nights under the Big Sky, they've driven down the wrong gravel road.

This is "Jam to Lamb," a monthlong getaway that has brought Clark, a bank worker from Lakeside, Mont., and about other 30 women from around the country to Burns' ranch, where they share her rural lifestyle and the work that comes with lambing 700 sheep.

Many are stepping onto a ranch for the first time, in brand-new work boots they'd have little use for back home in the city. Others are here in search of adventure, game to cast aside their curling irons and khakis for a few days in favor of baseball caps and jeans. Nearly all are in for experiences that they never dreamed of when they made reservations on cards that listed "blisters to calluses" and "hands-on learning" as benefits.

"You certainly can't worry about getting dirty," said Ellie Taege, a psychotherapist from Rhinelander, Wis., her T-shirt speckled with manure and her new gloves stained with iodine used on lambs' umbilical cords to help prevent infections.

On Burns' ranch, the accommodations aren't lavish and the workload isn't light. There isn't even a guarantee of a bed in Burns' house -- women are asked to bring sleeping bags, just in case -- and there is only one bathroom to share. Many simply fall asleep with the smell of sheep still on them, too tired or too busy for their turn in the shower.

Everyone is expected to chip in -- from checking ewes and tending lambs to fixing dinner and mowing the lawn when the action dies down -- and to apply what they've learned from watching Burns to finish all that needs to be done.

"I never want people to think they're being waited on," said Burns, 53, who works almost nonstop from sunrise to nightfall, powered by strong coffee and adrenaline. She labors according to a schedule set by the pregnant ewes -- not clocks or her guests' rumbling bellies.

Women come to lambing camp for different reasons, paying $250 for a week of distractions from their busy lives. They forget their needs and problems almost as quickly as they drop their duffel bags in Burns' house.

"Jam to Lamb" is about sheep and getting elbow-deep into a way of life that is fading across Montana and the West. The small house is filled with all manner of sheep- and farm-related stuff: magazines, sketches, a few knickknacks, wool blankets. Even meals are made around a main dish of lamb that Burns generally has prepared ahead of time. Shepherd's pie is a favorite.

"Jam to Lamb" has given Burns the opportunity to promote the lamb and wool industry by giving women, many with no background in agriculture, firsthand experience with the work that goes into producing the food and clothes they buy. Hers are among 300,000 sheep in Montana -- little more than half as many as 10 years ago, when there were 564,000 head.

"As long as I'm in the sheep business, I'm going to bring people in," said Burns, who moved to the ranch in 1983. "If you can't speak about what you believe in, what's the point of believing in it?"

Burns never intended to make the program an all-woman event -- or even an event, for that matter.

But a few years ago after her daughters, Piney and Bluesette, had left for college and started lives of their own, Burns found it difficult to keep up with the work. Her friend, Darcia Diehl, showed up at lambing camp with five friends. The work went well, her friends told their friends, and this time of year hasn't been the same for Burns since.

In the seven years that she's held "Jam to Lamb," at least 15 women have helped during each lambing season. Interest this year was so high that she had to turn people away, Burns says.

"They must have some sense of adventure, walking onto a strange ranch like this," Burns said. "I admire them for that. I don't know I'd ever do something like that."

There are a few men on the ranch; Burns has two full-time sheepherders. Dennis Baumann, who rented a trailer on Burns' ranch with his wife, Lara, and two girls for three months, has helped in the evenings and on weekends. The occasional husband or boyfriend also stops by.

But, largely, women run this show. Clark and her mother, Gayle Reid, are grateful for that. The two took a week's vacation to return to the ranch for their second year.

"Being around women frees you to ask more questions. You're not afraid to look stupid," said Reid, 53, an office manager from Missoula. "In the company of men, when you ask questions, they come and take over and do it themselves."

"Or," Clark added, "they don't have the patience for us to ask questions and learn."

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