Icelandic sheep are more genetically similar to their wild counterparts than many conventional breeds, making them tougher and more intelligent. However, these qualities also mean that the sheep aren't as compliant with the will of humans. When we tried to milk an ewe this afternoon, she warily kept her distance and didn't fall for any of our tricks. She was the best milker for the lady who raised her, but she wasn't about to share that with us for free. These sheep are smart, and a lot of trust and respect must be built between us before we can start taking things from them.
I realized that while modern farming has created low key, placid breeds of animals that are easy to extract product from, those animals aren't as healthy and vibrant as the wilder breeds. According to the Livestock Conservancy, many conventional breeds of animals that end up in grocery stores have been so inbred that their immune systems are unable to keep the animals alive without antibiotics. Some are unable to mate naturally or have lost the instincts to take care of their young. Industrial farming methods try to supplement and mechanize these problems away, but the fact remains that when you treat an animal like a machine, it actually starts to become a machine and lose its animal-ness.
The lineage of animals in the wild have persevered and adapted throughout history because of their ability to survive, which means that they hold the key to our collapsing agricultural complex. Even though cultural traits like instant gratification and short-term profit strategy are in the DNA of our economy (and in the DNA of those mutant, giant-breasted chickens that can't stand up in their tiny cages) our survival depends on the adaptation of our values. We need to treat our land, our animals and especially our people like they are not disposable, because they aren't.
It turns out that even Icelandic sheep will be your best friend if you give them a little grain and spend some time with them. When I went out to meet our new baby ewe born yesterday, all the mamas were excited to see me, "Hey there's that grain girl again!" I really couldn't earn the right to be friends with them until I put aside my own agenda and considered what interaction would be meaningful to them on their own terms (lets hear it for snacks.) I am really confident that the people who are thinking relationally about their animals and land are going to be the ones who change our food economy, because the best things in life require a meaningful relationship built on patience and love.