Vickey Russell left a corporate city job and became a sustainable shepherd, herding sheep on her own grass farm in Murrayville, Georgia.
Vickey Russell, the red-headed, truck-loving, dog whispering, yoga practicing, entrepreneurial, grass-farming shepherd, is not your typical farmer.
The sole owner and operator of both Certified-Naturally Grown Hidden Acres Natural Farm and Blue Dog Academy, Vickey is living the rural dream in teeny-town, North Georgia…and she does it nearly all by herself.
This is her journey from corporate America to sustainable female shepherd. Think it sounds like an unsurmountable task? Read our guide that breaks down how to go from city life to rural land ownership in 3 simple steps here.
From farm life, to the high life, and back again
A Tennessee native with a double-Scotch and Cherokee heritage, Vickey grew up on the Russell family homestead.
They raised cows, pigs, and chickens - but, as fate would have it, not sheep. Vickey would not work with sheep until many years later. The family also had a garden, a smokehouse, and a meat house. The real deal.
Her father worked for AT&T and was also a dog handler and trainer, and her mother, an entrepreneur herself, operated a boarding kennel and grooming shop.
An “edu-ma-cated farmer” (as she puts it), Vickey holds a double undergraduate degree in interior design and business and a master’s in industrial psychology.
“I wanted to help people be happy at work,” she says, “however, I found out corporations were more focused on the bottom-line than employee welfare.”
Disillusioned by corporate America, Vickey left her job, got her general contractor’s license, and started a high-end interior design and building business in the heart of Atlanta’s elite Buckhead community.
Whilst designing mansions and rubbing elbows with the city’s rich and fabulous, Vickey made time to feed her first love and hobby, dogs and dog training.
“Dogs have guided me all my life,” she says. And soon they would guide her back to the farm.
Vickey blew out her knee running an agility course and was laid up on the couch for eight months at the same time her beloved Blue - an Australian cattle dog and her longtime companion - was battling cancer.
“As I laid there with Blue on the couch day after day, I realized I just wanted a farm. I just wanted to get back to nature and out of the city, and I wanted it for him too. I had no big plan. Somehow I just knew it would be okay.”
In 2003 she left city life behind and bought a secluded and beautiful 22-acre farm in the hidden hills of Murrayville, Georgia.
She had zero intention of turning it into a lamb farm—but once again her dogs guided her.
“When Blue passed, I got a border collie from a herding line. I went to my first herding trial and I sat there in the grass and cried. It was my first time seeing herding and sheep up close. I just sat in the grass and boohooed. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
After that, Vickey was hooked on border collies and sheep.
From dog training to shepherding
She began her first flock accidentally after being guilted into adopting an orphan lamb, Athos, from her herding dog trainer.
“She said, you know that lamb can’t be alone, you’ve got to have more sheep. I have two more I can sell ya,” Vickey recalls.
She sighs and rolls her eyes.
“Then I had three sheep, and I had two mentors, Patrick Shannahan from Idaho and Vergil Holland from Kentucky. They both were wonderful to me and taught me how to work dogs and care for sheep. I fell in love with my sheep. They are just wonderful, peaceful animals. Sheep bring a tranquility to you that other animals don’t.”
A business woman at heart, Vickey knew she had to make the land work for her and her growing flock of sheep.
“So I decided to start this lamb business because I couldn’t have all these lambs just dying of old age. There has to be a balance. I started clearing land and building pastures, and none of this (she points out the window to acres of beautiful rolling green hills) was really pastures. I cleared that one by hand.
“I started selling lamb on a small scale. I had to find my own way, on weight, figuring out the timing, and the best breeds that produce the best carcass.”
The learning curve—shepherding a flock of 100
“It was a big learning curve to learn how to care for them.”
An understatement to say the least, but her lack of experience did not deter Vickey.
Among many factors she had to “figure out” were fencing, how to get a flock of 100+ reluctant sheep into a barn, what to do when a ram charges you, how to load them into a trailer, how to find a humane processor, what to do if one dies on you, hoof trimming, how to prevent foot rot, what types of weeds and grass they will and won’t eat, how to grow enough grass for hay, and which type of guard animals to place in which pastures (she uses two donkeys and a guard dog named Pearl).
When asked how she figured it all out, she laughed, covered her face and said, “When I think about it, it’s been such a journey.”
She gives huge credit to her farming mentors and to friends she met on the sheep dog trialing circuit.
“I’d go on the circuit with my dogs and travel to compete in herding competitions all over the country. In my journeys, everybody who has these sheep dogs has sheep, so I’d be the one asking questions. I also did a lot of self-researching.”
She paused and narrowed her eyes for a moment before going on.
“And I have to say this, there’s a lot of information on that ‘Mr. Google.’ That’s the thing, there’s a lot of written information about sheep, but a farming mentor is worth a million dollars. Someone experienced who will actually tell you the truth because they’re not worried about competition. You just won’t find anything like that on Google.”
After what she calls “a lot of trial and error,” Vickey settled on a Dorper and Katahdin crossbreed known as a hair sheep.
She explained this type of breed is a “self-shearing” variety well adapted to warm climates, which makes them ideal for the hot Southern summers.
“The hair sheep are easier to manage and more conducive to this area, and because they don’t need to produce lanolin in their wool, they’re leaner and taste better to the American palate.”
At present, Vickey has 84 sheep grazing on three separate pastures. Through networking in the community, she’s found other landowners wishing to improve their pastures in exchange for allowing her sheep to graze.
“Having three separate pastures is key for rotational grazing and parasite management,” Vickey explained. “You see, parasites only survive a 28 day cycle. So I can treat the sheep, let them eat the grass down, then move them off the field for 28 days. When they return, the field is naturally parasite-free.”
This is all part of the sustainable, nature-based approach she takes to raising her lambs. Minimal treatment, lots of good grass, and keeping them as close to “who they are” as possible.
Practicing sustainable grass farming is a lot more work than a conventional approach, and Vickey admits she doesn’t sleep as much as she’d like. But for someone who cares deeply for the welfare of her animals, it’s worth the extra effort.
Her hardest lesson: what it takes to call yourself a shepherd
Vickey didn’t start calling herself “a shepherd” until she’d been practicing quite a while.
“My operational definition of being a shepherd—and this was the hardest lesson I had to learn—is you have to have run the gauntlet, you have to be able to do everything. You have to be willing to love them, shoot them—when necessary to relieve suffering, skin them, butcher them, cook them, eat them. You have to. It’s the gestalt of the whole process and you have to do it with love and honor.”
“They’re not just animals. They’re living creatures and they give their lives for others’ sustenance. To me that’s an honor. To be a shepherd you have to bring them in and let them go with grace.
“And that’s where I feel totally responsible to all my animals, I won’t auction them off at the sell barn. They’re going to be with me until the end.”
And she is true to her word.
When her flock comes to the end of their lives, Vickey gets up before sunrise to take them to slaughter. This way her animals are first in line, everything is clean, and they don’t have to spend the night in a strange place.
She brings her dogs, they say a blessing, and her dogs walk them to the kill floor.
“I used to cry on the way home. I don’t anymore. I did the first year, but you know you have to do it. Being a shepherd is not for sissies. There’s a lot of hard physical and emotional work, but it’s all worth it because nothing is sweeter than a baby lamb.”
Love and honor, from beginning to end.
Why Vickey believes women are especially suited for farming
So, what about being a female shepherd-grass-farmer in the male-dominated cattle-farming world? Vickey had this to say about women and farming:
“Men are MacGyvers. They’re very mechanical and methodical, their physical strength is greater than ours, and they’re good at those aspects of the job. But women have an internal strength. We’re nurturers, we’re caregivers, we want to take care of things, we want to make sure everything’s okay.
“Both paths are correct, but women bring something to it that’s a little deeper because there’s so much mothering that goes on. You should see how fast I jump out of bed in the middle of the night when I hear coyotes howling. I would knock anyone over to protect my sheep.”
Despite being one of the only solo female farmers in town, Vickey credits a lot of her success to the male friends she’s made in the farming community. They’ve helped her with everything from getting up hay and pulling her tractor out of the mud, to rescuing and euthanizing sheep maimed by predators.
“Your network of farmers are very valuable. We all help each other and that’s the beauty of living in a small area. It took a long time to build those friendships, but it’s worth it.”
Keeping the balance
Besides shepherding her flock, hand-weeding and maintaining her pastures, and keeping up her land, Vickey also runs a wildly successful dog training, boarding, and agility business six days a week.
She has a helper, Junie, who comes six hours a week. But other than that she does it all.
At age 50. How exactly does she do it all and manage to stay healthy, happy and passionate?
The answer lies in movement, natural medicine, and an inherent trust in life’s divine order.
“I see a chiropractor and a massage therapist every six weeks, receive energy work, I do yoga, I meditate, and I drink diatomaceous earth all the time (to keep toxins at bay). And you know, when you get to be 50 years old you better have a physical passion that makes you move and gets you outside to breathe some fresh air.
“I love farming and my animals, but I also dance and teach agility to dogs. I believe the more natural you are the easier life is to process.
“I also try to create situations around my home that help me remember on a daily basis what my life is really about. That’s why I keep Lambo’s bell out front (a baby lamb she rescued after its mother was killed by pit bulls), why I named my goats yin and yang, and why I keep an altar where I pray, meditate and practice yoga.
“Sometimes I’ll just lie out in the grass with Pearl (her guard dog), look up at the sky, and I know everything is in divine order…if we just stop overthinking and trying to control it, life really is all good.”
When you drive onto Hidden Acres Natural Farm for the first time, a sense of divine order is exactly what you feel.
From the long, hidden tree-lined gravel driveway, to the gentle sight of lambs grazing in the pasture under the watchful eye of their protector, to the pack of 15 dogs that greets you with rowdy barking and happy faces…life really is all good.
Vickey is open to mentoring and partnering with those interested in learning more about being a real shepherd, grass farming, and raising lambs naturally with love and honor.
If you're dreaming of starting your own farm, view available rural properties in the South from Florida toTexas on our parent company's website, RaydientPlaces.com.
All photography by Danielle Grimaldi.