Video: Spend a minute with Mattituck’s Icelandic sheep

01/21/2012 12:30 PM |

GIANNA VOLPE | Just one of 13 Icelandic sheep who currently live on a farm in Mattituck.

One Mattituck family has traded the Big Apple for big-haired sheep.

New York financial industry professionals Tom Geppel and Carol Festa, along with their children Olivia, 11, and Max, 7, own 27.5 acres of certified organic farmland on Cox Lane in Cutchogue, but you won’t find rows of corn or potatoes or wine grapes.

Eventually the view will be unique with 13 shaggy-fleeced Icelandic sheep roaming about.

Icelandic sheep are one of the oldest domesticated breeds, famous for their thick wool and used predominantly for meat in Iceland.

The family has no such plans, and instead looks forward to one day making cheese. The breed produces less milk than some other sheep, but it has a higher fat content with produces a greater volume of cheese.

A registered pure-bred Icelandic sheep costs $400 to $600, Mr. Geppel said. In early October, he and his wife invested in sheep from each of two breeders, in Maine and Virginia, with one ram per group.

Early on, though, the family experienced the death of their first lamb. However, as the sheep begin to breed, chances are the family will replace that lost lamb with several more, as Icelandic sheep carry a gene that makes it common for them to produce up to seven lambs at a time.

“I didn’t choose the unlucky 13 number, but that’s what we ended up with,” Mr. Geppel said.

The sheep currently reside on about on 22 acres in Mattituck leased from Pindar Vineyards.

“We were trying to get our feet wet,” Ms. Festa said. “We decided to lease some property and get these sheep going. Then this opportunity came along on Cox Lane, which we thought really fit what we were looking for.”

The couple cites the film documentary “Food Inc.,” a highly critical look at large food corporations, as their biggest inspiration.

They also follow the philosophy of Joel Salatin, an author and lecturer who takes a holistic approach to raising crops and livestock on his Virginia farm.

“What he believes is that the industrial-food complex really works against the small farmer,” Ms. Festa said. “He believes in creating a symbiotic relationship between different types of food products and animals. He’ll have cows graze on a pasture first then have chickens scratch through what the cows have left behind. That enriches the earth.”

The couple’s sheep are pasture-fed, as Icelandics are accustomed to. There’s still work to be done on the Cox Lane property, including planting a permanent pasture and installing fencing, before the sheep are moved there, Mr. Geppel said. The sheep are expected to stay in Mattituck until the spring of 2013.

Mr. Geppel said one of the primary reasons he and his wife wanted to become farmers was to create a legacy to define their post-financial world lives.

“A more productive and simple life is what we’re after” he said. “Unlike stocks, we wanted to invest in something we could see and feel.”

They also hope that farm life will create a strong work ethic in their children that will serve as a foundation “for whatever they want to do in their lives,” he said.

“We feel very strongly about kids having purpose,” Ms. Festa added. “I look at my parents, who grew up on farms themselves, and they were really instrumental to the successes and failures of their family’s enterprises. They had responsibility and purpose in their life and I think that really builds character. I think it will enhance them as individuals.”

The farm would also serve as a way for the family to put down North Fork roots, Mr. Geppel said. The couple said buying their Icelandic sheep has “absolutely” connected them with the community to a degree they haven’t experienced since they moved to the North Fork nearly a decade ago.

All it took was one bicycle trip out to Shelter Island in 1993 to get the then-newlyweds hooked on the area.

“I just fell in love with the North Fork after that,” Ms. Festa said. After their marriage, the couple bought and summered in a Greenport condo before settling in Mattituck.

gvolpe@timesreview.com