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'Keeping Watch' chronicles a year on small Minnesota farm

Kathy Sletto could have done a better job of convincing readers not to make their back-to-the-land dreams a reality. In her farm memoir "Keeping Watch" (Borealis Books), she recounts the long days of numbingly hard work, the abject financial realities, and the hands-on management of the back ends of various animals. But she clearly loves farm life, and in her anecdotes, which channel the emotional insights of James Herriot and the practicality of Mother Earth News, she makes small farming seem like a good idea — or at least a lot of fun.

Sletto’s an animal nut of the first order, keeping company with — at last count; it’s lambing season — three llamas, two alpacas, 19 sheep, 25-30 rabbits; one dog, and a plethora of barn cats on Shepherd’s Bay, the Minnesota farm she runs with her husband. Most of the animals are wool-bearing, and Sletto makes a modest income selling hand-spun yarn and wool products, working as a grant writer on the side.

“Keep your day job, and start out small,” Sletto advises other would-be shepherds. “Don’t let your children run off with their friends until the sheep are sheared and the chores are done. Every pair of hands is essential, especially while castrating llamas. This is definitely not a how-to book. It’s just a record of how we — in our inefficient and bumbling way — survived one particular year on the farm.”

Sletto admits that the farm still isn’t profitable, partly because they are still developing their marketing skills, partly because they allow their elderly animals to live out their lives to the end, rather than get rid of the old and unproductive. “I like to think that they enjoy a few years of peaceful retirement,” she says.

“Each animal has a distinct personality and each one has a unique face. Some have a great sense of humor. If you pay close enough attention, you will discover that animals — yes, even sheep — experience the entire range of emotions — affection, joy, frustration, compassion. You can’t mistake the despair felt by a sheep mother who spends days searching and crying for a lamb that has died or been taken by coyotes. I don’t claim that everyone should become a vegetarian, but we should all be mindful of the sacrifices of others, of any species.”

Visitors to the farm became interested in these personalities, and often asked Sletto to write down the names and stories of the animals. She decided to put together a collection of bios, which grew into a manuscript.

“Then I drove to the local Target and looked through their book section for animal topics. The only book that fit the description at that time was "Marley and Me," a national best-seller. I found contact information and went home to e-mail the publisher and editor or agent with details about my manuscript. I don’t think I ever got a response from the publisher, but the agent/editor replied with some very helpful advice on how to improve the manuscript. While I was working on the revisions, I discovered Borealis Books of St. Paul, which was a better fit for my work.”

It’s lambing season, but Sletto will be reading from "Keeping Watch" throughout the spring.

Events

Noon-2 p.m. March 27, Cherry Street Books, 503 Broadway Street, Alexandria, Minn. 320-763-9400

April 2, Gallery of Dreams yarn store, 312 North Nokomis, Alexandria, Minn. 320-762-5400

May 8 and 9, Shepherd's Harvest Sheep and Wool Festival (book reading/signing on the 9th), Washington County Fairgrounds, Lake Elmo

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