RIVERTON — The crocuses are blooming and the geese have returned from their winter vacation, but that isn't how Clay Butterfield's neighbors know that spring has arrived.
All they have to do is drive past Clay's sheep corral and watch the newborn lambs play "king of the hill" to know that it's time to wrap up the woolens and get out the sunscreen.
After a long winter, the Butterfields' spring lambs are always a welcome sight for everyone in Riverton. "It means that better days are on the way," says Clay, 51, a fourth-generation sheep farmer who also teaches agriculture at Bingham High School.
Is there anyone, he asks, who doesn't light up at the sight of a frisky new lamb?
Last week, Clay and his wife, Sharon, a registered nurse, invited me to bring along my 2-year-old son, Rory, to see the new additions to their herd and feed one or two woolly babies with a bottle. Over a Free Lunch of bagels and chocolate milk, they talked fondly about their years in the sheep business and pondered over what they'll do when their family farm is gone.
Like many farmers, the Butterfields are facing a dilemma: Their land has become so valuable that when it's passed down they won't be able to afford millions in inheritance taxes. Already, Clay has sold most of his herd, unable to keep up with the chores on 80 acres since his father, Eldon, died last year.
"When my mother passes away, I imagine our lifestyle will go, too," says Clay, a slim and easygoing man who speaks with a slight Western twang. He pauses and smiles. "We're all hoping she lives a long while."
Clay's great-great-grandfather, John Butterfield (of Butterfield Canyon fame), was one of the first to raise sheep in the Salt Lake Valley, shortly after arriving with the Mormon pioneers in 1847. But today, with new subdivisions creeping in from all sides, there aren't enough sheep to keep a farmer outfitted in long woolen underwear.
Clay Butterfield knows that he is the last of a breed, but he's determined to sharpen his shears for as long as he can.
"When I grew up, there was nothing but dirt roads and blue sky," he says, jumping over the fence to chase down a pair of twin lambs born the day before. "Our herd fed clear down to 90th South."
He laughs as the lambs dodge him and race around the corral. "C'mon, lamb," he calls, wrestling one into his arms. "C'mon, now, get up here, lamb!"
"Can you believe that as soon as they're born, they take off running?" asks Clay. "We sure get a kick out of watching them."
More than one lamb has spent the night curled up next to the Butterfields' fireplace when the air is too chilly for newborns.
"When I first met Clay, I knew absolutely nothing about sheep," says Sharon, who has since fed hundreds of lambs with a bottle. "I sat on the fence and watched the spring lambs being born, and I was just amazed. Some of them would follow you right into the house."
Sharon was entranced, but the real reason she married Clay, she says, is "because I wanted to be around horses."
"Now, there's not much room for those either," she says as traffic whizzes by her farmhouse. "It's real sad when we go out for walks. Our way of life is disappearing."
Thanks to Clay, though, at least a few wanna-be farmers are waiting in the ranks. In his barn at the school, he shows students how to birth lambs, shear wool and dock tails — tasks he hopes they might need one day.
"I'd love it if the kids who want to farm can find a way to do it," he says, gently placing the lambs back in the corral. "There's really no better way to live that I can think of."
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