City to farm: The Dougherty family

MU professor of communications, Debbie Dougherty and her husband, Tom Clark, trade their lives in Columbia for a sheep farm in Williamsburg.
Sunday, March 23, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 11:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Debbie Dougherty prepares for the sheep routine maintenance on March 1 at her family’s farm in Williamsburg, Mo. Debbie and her husband, Tom Clark, own 50 Soay and Dorper sheep.

On the phone, Debbie Dougherty reassures her father she will pick up the medicine for the animals on the way home.


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Not the type of academic conversation one would expect for such a well-regarded MU professor of communications.

Debbie and her husband, Tom Clark, are academics, but they are also farmers. They live in Williamsburg, approximately 31 miles from farmhouse porch to her office door in Switzler Hall.

In 2006, Tom wanted to apply for a job in St. Louis while the family was living in Columbia.

“Tom was really bored and unhappy,” Debbie said. “He doesn’t have a hobby, but likes taking care of farm stuff.”

She was reluctant at first to move but wanted her husband to be happy. Tom applied and had a job in 30 days.

They bought a piece of property beyond Kingdom City in November 2006.

By March 2007, they had solidified building plans, and by August, they had moved to a place they call Whetstone Prairie Dorper and Soay Sheep Farm.

Debbie and Tom also designed and built a home for her parents across the road.

“We were so exhausted but relieved,” Debbie said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything harder than building two houses and cleaning up.”

They made the move from a brick house on Woodhill Road with a big back yard and no sidewalk to a framed yellow house with three stories and covered porch.

“I haven’t dreamed of homes before,” Debbie said. She had only weeks to design the house, not months or years.

“The house is designed on how we live,” Debbie said. “The lights are exactly where they should be.”

A flight of stairs greets guests as they enter the front door. A large area opens onto the family room and kitchen.

In the family room, a rack of deer antlers and a 6-foot cactus sit near the stone fireplace.

Terra cotta paint and a redwood burrow table give the family a sense of being surrounded by the earth.

Besides the earthy colors in the family room and kitchen, a strong purple pops on the walls and towels in Tom and Debbie’s bathroom.

Their two children, Fionna, 10, and Finnian, 5, have bedrooms in primary colors.

“The colors I used reminded me of the painted desert,” Debbie said.

“If I would design it differently, I would make it a smaller house,” Debbie said. “We live in 81 percent of our house every day.”

When the family is not enjoying the space, they are outside, working on the farm and tending to the animals — Big Red, the horse; Pattie, the donkey; and Buttercup, the cow.

The family’s focus is the flock of roughly 50 Dorper and Soay sheep. They had the Soay sheep shipped from Oregon; they have even driven to Texas to bring home a couple of animals.

They produce breeding stock for sale at auction.

“They are hobby-farm animals and a big profit maker for us,” Debbie said.

Debbie recalled the first few experiences she had with sheep and the birthing process on the farm.

Their sheep Gloria was pregnant, and they had anticipated the birth for a long time. It was in the middle of the ice storm, and Debbie had to run out to catch the lamb.

“One was deformed, and my husband was in San Diego,” she said. “I wanted to curse God but thought that was a bad idea. The baby wasn’t in any position that was in the book. It’s like a rule: They only have babies in bad weather.”

Debbie said she feels like she has a split personality, juggling an academic life with time on a farm.

“I thought I was busy here in town, but we spend every moment at home,” she said. “It changes the way we think about work.”

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