BELEN, N.M. (KRQE) – Within the gates of Terra Patre Farm in Belen, the early signs of dawn mean one thing: food. The New Mexico Dahl sheep that live there don’t look like your average ewes and rams. They have both wool and hair, and sport horns similar to bighorn sheep.
“I found six of them back in the ’80’s. They were almost completely extinct,” said Donald Chavez, owner of Terra Patre Farm. “I’m trying to get the numbers high enough so when I’m extinct, they will carry on the legacy.”
Caring for these unique sheep became Chavez’s life mission. He says it’s a legacy of living history.
“This farm was established in 1740 by my great-grandfather nine generations back,” said Chavez. “He petitioned the King of Spain for a land grant to be named Belen.”
This living history became all too personal for Chavez. He credits modern technology advancing genealogy studies.
“Back in the ’90s, I was very interested in genealogy. I managed to trace my own genealogy as far back as Juan de Onate in 1598 when they brought what is known as the Wild West to North America and the United States,” said Chavez, who is a 14th generation nephew of de Onate. “With the new genealogy sites online, I was able to trace my genealogy all the way back to Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, himself, who brought these sheep with him back in 1540.”
Chavez is a 16th generation descendant of Coronado. He says it’s almost poetic that he wound up rescuing the very same line of sheep that his ancestor brought to New Mexico.
“I started rescuing these sheep back in the ’80s, just as a matter of preserving our heritage, our history, our ranching culture. I had no idea I was one of his great-grandsons,” said Chavez. “I just don’t believe sometimes that things are an accident.”
As Chavez cares for these sheep unique to New Mexico, he’s getting some help from one of the state’s strongest industries: breweries.
“They use the grain to brew the beer, then after they take the sugars out and extract the beer, the waste is the spent grain,” said Chavez. “That spent grain is really nutritious, it still has a lot of protein in it, and it helps defray the cost of feeding these sheep.”
One of the breweries he works with is 377 Brewery near Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.
“Don wanted the grain and we had the grain,” said Lyna Waggoner, head brewer at 377 Brewery. “You always have to have an outlet. There’s a lot of grain that goes through. You always have to have someone so if we can help his sheep out, it works for me.”
Traveling around town to collect spent grain, Chavez then goes from south Albuquerque and heads north to one of the larger breweries in the city, Steel Bender Brewyard.
“Seemed like a worthwhile cause, so we called Don, and he seemed like a worthwhile guy, and so the whole ball got rolling,” said Bob Haggerty, head brewer at Steel Bender Brewyard. “This one is an easy one, it’s really no skin off our back and it really feels good to be able to help.”
Back at the farm, the Dahl sheep go to town on the grain. The thousands of pounds collected in this single day will only last a couple of weeks.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship because without ranchers, the breweries would have to pay to get rid of their grain,” said Chavez. “This way, we get grain for free, they get to get rid of their grain, and we have grain-fed sheep.”
It’s a long day of work, but Chavez wouldn’t trade it for anything. He says he’s already planning ahead for the farm’s future.
“My plan for the future is to put it in a perpetual trust to care for these sheep and to serve as a teaching farm for future generations, so that 16 more generations down the line, young descendants of my family, your family, our community, will be able to enjoy this living history,” said Chavez.
He says he started with fewer than a dozen sheep when rescuing them in the 1980s. Now, Terra Patre Farm is home to more than 80 sheep, with more lambs expected through the spring.