Feeling sheepish in Lepsa.

The day we went to see the sheepfolds of Lepsa, Romania was my favorite day ever (til tomorrow). The impossible-to-spell-or-pronounce region of Vrancioaia is located between the Black Sea and Transylvania, on the junction of two tectonic plates and is prone to earth-quakes, has salty soil from when it used to be under the ocean, and is retouched-calendar-photo perfect.

It’s not bread, it’s cottage cheese.

For centuries, this has been sheep-breeding & cheese-making country but with anemic production of the local sheep breed and new cheese standards imposed by the EU (Romania became a member in 2007 and had five years to get up to speed) that traditional way of life is fading fast. People can’t make a living on the farm, and young people are fleeing to Europe and the cities to find jobs.

So Heifer and the 2700-member Mountain Farmers Federation have joined forces to help these sheep-breeders transition to a free market economy. The plan is to revitalize the Red-face Tigaia breed with Black-face meat rams and fresh Red-faced ewes … and train farmers to meet new hygienic standards of cheese production.

It sounds good on paper, but you really don’t get it ‘til you see the sheepfold in action — and then it’s like something right out of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, complete with hay harvested with scythes and fashioned into fat haystacks that will last through the long, hard winter.

From April til October each year, Ion (John) and Dorica Cobzaru live up in the sheepfold with a few other shepherds and seven big dogs, taking care of their own sheep and 100 of their neighbors’ goats and sheep. They rise at 4:30 am, milk the flock at 6 am, take the herd out to pasture and then make the sheep cheese (there is no electricity to refrigerate the milk so it has to be immediately boiled and made into cheese). The flock will produce 8 kilos of cheese each milking: (at noon and 8 pm), and in between there is hay to be harvested, sheep to be shorn, and animals to be herded and fed. During the night, the shepherds make big fires to keep away wolves, bears and wild boars, the seven dogs sleep around the perimeter of the herd, and John sleeps outside to keep guard against the wily wolves.

For their hours of labor, the shepherds will keep 3 kilos out of every 10 kilos of sheep cheese they make, and middlemen regularly come to the sheepfold on horseback to pick up the freshly made, immensely popular cheese to sell in the local markets.

Chubby little lamb.

With Heifer’s gift of 10 new sheep and 1 new ram to each of 50 families in the valley (plus the support of the local veterinarian and town mayor), the project is producing bigger, fatter lambs that are far more profitable for the farmer. Ewes can get pregnant sometime before their second year and will have 2-3 babies a year for about 8 years. Male lambs are sold at 2-3 months and the fatter and sweeter they are (black-faced lambs are reputedly delicious), the more income they’ll bring to the farmer.

And with that income, the farmers can work together (never use the word “collectively” in post-communist Romania) to improve hygiene standards in making sheep cheese, establish better routes to market for wool, leather, milk and lamb, and make Lepsa a place where a farmer can make a living.

Like a leading man out of a Bernardo Bertolucci movie, John loves the rural life.

John went to Italy three times to work before he decided, “If I’m going to be poor, I might as well be poor in my own country.” His son Adrien, 21, just returned from picking strawberries in Italy and is happy to be back in the fold.

Adrien Cobzaru

With the new sheep from Heifer and a new sense of hope in the valley, maybe all the farmer boys of Lepsa can grow up to be prosperous in their own country.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on “Feeling sheepish in Lepsa.

  1. Somehow I didn’t know people milked sheep and made cheese from it. Goats, yes. Another fascinating post, Betty. Thanks so much. Is this goat-milking thing common globally and I’m just that ignorant?

    • Hi Kathryn! Yes, a lot of people milk goats and sheep – but they don’t in Haiti (they don’t like goat milk) so you can definitely be forgiven for not knowing!! I loved this village so much — isn’t it gorgeous???

  2. Lori miller

    What a great picture you paint…enjoy!

  3. Oh Betty, the world is a bigger place to me because of you. Do you sometimes think that these “poor” people live richer lives (than us) ? They are in touch with the earth and it’s cycles, or am I glamourizing the situation ?

    • I don’t think you’re glamorizing the situation because it’s what I experience when I go to these countries. I can’t underestimate the difficulties the people face — because they are intense — but I do think living in touch with nature, and being so fundamentally involved in everything you eat, is really life-affirming.

  4. Martha Radatz

    What a beautiful family! Boars and bears and wolves, oh my! It does sound like another time and place.
    Thank you this window into rural Romania.

    • Martha — Very sadly, I have to report that Ion’s oldest son (from his first marriage — his first wife didn’t want to live in the country) died in March in a car accident, and both he and Dorica were still very tender and dressed in mourning clothes. Despite his beautiful face and the twinkle in his eye, he was still very sad .. they both were. But yes, what a lovely family!!

  5. What a lovely corner of the world! I respect Heifer’s ability to partner with local agriculture experts to find a solution to improve the difficult lives of hardworking families. Between your exquisite photos and irrepressible prose, you express it all so gorgeously, Betty. Are you getting tired of life on the road yet?

    • Nope .. not yet! I’m happy to be going to Appalachia in July so I don’t have to get on a plane, but frankly, I can’t WAIT to visit all my upcoming countries … thanks so much for the comment, Chris!!

  6. Cindie

    Hi Betty, isn’t there a way to fence in the sheep at night to protect the herd? The dogs make sense, but huge fires? Sounds dangerous and also a large usage of fuel.

    Also, how many places have you visited that lack electricity, besides this family in Romania?

    Thanks, Betty, and keep on truckin’!

    • Hi Cindie! They are way up in the countryside, because that is where the good communal pastures are … so the only structures that exist up there are the ones they build. And they’re pretty rudimentary. They have pens, but that won’t keep the wolves out and since they don’t have guns (outlawed in Romania), they have to count on fire (wolves are scared and keep away) … and the dogs to alert them to danger. Almost every place I’ve visited lacks electricity in the far rural communities … it’s not uncommon. The small hotels where I stay have electricity (and usually even internet) but when you get out in the countryside, electricity is sporadic.

  7. So I never asked a question…..hope it’s not too late. 🙂 Just wondering, do you get a sense that men are more respectful of women in these third world countries because of their enormous contributions to their survival? I know that the men have a huge burden for the contribution and protection as well – but do they love differently? Just curious?

  8. Never too late to ask a question, Ivette! I rarely get the impression that men are more respectful of women — because most of these cultures disregard what women do contribute and the enormity of what they contribute … but I think the Heifer teachings really do radically alter this perspective. I think it’s more easy to influence this kind of transformation when the culture isn’t totally stacked against women, though — as in religiously and culturally induced strictures that denigrate women and their contribution. Lovely to hear from you!!!

  9. I love sheep and goats. I am recouperating but as soon as possible I want to help! This inspired me! Thanks!

    • Miss Spider — I wish you a fast recovery and I am so happy that you feel called to help! Keep reading … more sheep and goats to come!! ( :

  10. lovely pictures of lovely people – thanks for bringing your wonderful world to my screen. 🙂

  11. It’s difficult to think of people who live in a European country being so desperately poor.
    So glad that Heifer are trying to help the farmers. I guess that’s why John could say, “If I’m going to be poor, I might as well be poor in my own country.”

    • teresa

      Poverty knows no country , and is unfortunately everywhere. The poorest people you ever could meet are American Indians still living on reservations in nearly ever county in the USA….Very few Indians are casino tribes, and many reservations Indians don’t have indoor plumbing, or decent schools..Take a look around in your own area of the country, you will most likely find them.


      • Teresa — I completely agree that we have plenty of poor people who need help in this country — and you’ll be happy to know that I’m going to Appalachia this month to write about Heifer’s program, Seeds of Change. The Appalachian people living in western North Carolina are not Native Americans, but they surely are poor. And yes, it is very shocking to see conditions on many of the reservations … and heartbreaking.

      • teresa

        Betty, that is where my people the Cherokee are from, they were forced to leave and removed to OK.
        So I’m very much looking forward to hearing about your adventures in beautiful N. Carolina.

        Happy 4th!!


    • Rosie … I think John is so charismatic … and I was just fascinated that somebody in this day and age really wanted to be a shepherd, and was obviously so delighted by his choice of work, even though it’s such hard physical work.
      One of the most touching things was when the Heifer folks told him that I was from the USA and he asked, “Did you drive here or fly here?” I just loved that…. and yet, he was a very sophisticated guy in many ways. Had a droll sense of humor, and a survivor’s resilience. His oldest son had just died 3 months ago in a car accident and he was very, very sad when he talked about it — but then he shrugged and walked into his flock and started telling us about the sheep. VERY impressive guy!

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