Jacob sheep make comeback at 4-H & FFA Fair, teach suburban kids about farm life

Jacob sheep are making a Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair comeback.

Last year only one Jacob sheep, Poe, competed at the Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair’s breeding sheep show; he came out as the grand champion in his class.

This year he competed with almost 10 others of the same breed in the wool category from the Knottyhead Valley Jacob Farm in Taneytown, bringing the breed — characterized by fluffy white wool with black spots and two to four horns — back to the competition for the first time in more than a decade.


And the comeback is a result of Jeff Johnston, owner of the Knottyhead Valley Jacob Farm, who has started leasing his black-spotted sheep to Westminster kids involved with 4-H, the Boys & Girls Club, Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts to get farm experience. In exchange for caring for the sheep and helping out on the farm, the kids get to show the sheep at the fair, he said, and feel the pride that comes from participating in a long-standing tradition.

“When we first got [the sheep], these things were wild, wild,” Johnston said behind the scenes at the fair Saturday afternoon. “And the kids… get them in a small pen, throw the lasso… it’s all muddy. But it’s all part of what they have to do to be a farmer.”

Although Poe is about a year and a half old, his friends were just born this March and April.

Joey Battaglia, 10, was one of the kids to show a Jacob sheep this weekend. His sheep, Thunder, is one of the new ones on the farm, and he named her after a song by his favorite band, Imagine Dragons.

“It’s been a big experience for me,” he said, “trying to get used to Thunder — trying to get her to know me.”

When asked how he could describe her personality, he said she is “very fast, very friendly.”

Later in the afternoon, Thunder won fourth place in the Wool Breed competition for Class 13 Junior Ewe Lambs.

“I like seeing the kids learning the responsibility of taking care of them,” said his mother, Tara Battaglia. “Making sure they have water and food and that they’re healthy, learning that it’s hard work. They get the leadership experience.”

Plus, she said, Joey loves it and so does her younger daughter who isn’t old enough to show yet.

“They beg,” Battaglia said. “ ‘When can we go to the farm this week?’ ”

Next to Joey sat Piper Gawel, 8, on the ground next to her ram, Stormy 7. She said she chose to add the “7” to his name because of a marking on the back of his leg that resembles the number.

She said she’s learned a lot through working with Stormy 7 this spring, and that he has also learned about her.

“We would always have a hard time when we first herded them up,” she said.

Now it’s getting easier, Piper said placing her forehead against her new friend’s. Later at the competition Stormy 7 won the Wool Breed Reserve Champion Ram award.


The Champion Ram award went to Poe again this year, who was shown by Emily Hebron, 13.

“I’ve been helping other animals too, for pretty much my entire life,” she said. “But Poe, he works very nicely and he was really easy to train. He just loves people.

“He’s really fun and he’s my best sheep,” said Hebron.

But Jacob sheep aren’t very common at fairs.

Candy Cole — a former 4-H’er from High Ridge Farm who hasn’t missed a sheep show in 29 years — said before Poe came out last year, she hadn’t seen a Jacob sheep at the Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair in 15 to 20 years.

“You just don’t see a lot of wool breeds,” she said. “People like them because they’re unique, but the wool isn’t worth a lot unless you are the one spinning and weaving it a lot.

“There’s never even been a lot of Jacobs at the state fair,” Cole said.

Sheep Committee member Debbie Talbert agreed, although she could not confirm the last time she saw one at the fair.

“Last year for our show was the first year we had any of the Jacobs entered into the sheep show in recent years,” said Talbert.

Johnston said their uniqueness is what draws him to them, and why he breeds them at his Taneytown farm and leases them to local kids.

“They are the original sheep of the Middle East, of the Bible,” he said. “I never liked the cookie-cutter sheep, although I’m sure there’s money to be made [with them].”

There are many romantic stories about the Jacob sheep, particularly one mentioning the breed directly descends from the flock of sheep mentioned in the Bible, according to the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association.

Although it hasn’t been proven, the association said documentation throughout history indicates spotted or pied sheep may have originated in what is now Syria about 3,000 years ago, and that pictorial evidence traces their migration through North Africa, Sicily, Spain and on to England.

Upcoming animal showings and other 4-H & FFA Fair events can be found on the fair’s schedule, which is on the Carroll County Fair website: