Day 5: ‘The SheepOver’ captivates in time for Christmas

12 days of Christmas… with a twist.

Day 5:  If you love sheep, or beautiful photo art or just want to read and see an authenticly sweet story… I highly recommend Sweet Pea & Friends “The SheepOver,” with its one-of-a-kind storybook style for children and adults, alike. Today’s Farmshine has a story about how John and Jennifer Churchman followed their dream, self-published a children’s book last summer, and after the dust settled on the publishers’ bidding war recently, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has it widely available in time for Christmas. The 6 preordered copies I purchased all have good homes in Pennsylvania and South Dakota! 🙂  (Photos herein by John Churchman)

 Sweet Pea(book)Churchman


By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Dec. 18, 2015 

ESSEX, Vt. — In some ways an ordinary farm, in other ways not so much. John and Jennifer Churchman create photography for commercial purposes at their Essex, Vermont farm where the animals and crops are subjects for client projects.

Their work has now yielded an extraordinary book: Sweet Pea & Friends “The Sheepover,” which has taken the children’s literature industry by storm. After the dust settled on a bidding war by five major publishers a few weeks ago, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers took over and immediately moved the farm-rooted, magically-illustrated story about injured lamb “Sweet Pea” to market in time for Christmas.

The Sheepover is available at local book stores, Barnes and Noble, and stores like Target, and Walmart. This link will take those interested to find stores that have it or where to order it in time for Christmas

In fact The Sheepover went from 20,000th most popular book on Amazon to 500th in a few short days, then sold out in that online venue. Little, Brown is working on re-stocking for Amazon Prime delivery.


But before all of this excitement, the story began simply when fine art photographer John Churchman and his wife, Jennifer, a writer and photographer, started a self-publishing book project. They didn’t sit down with a marketing plan, nor did they envision the quick sell-out of their first 4000 self-published copies nor the publishers’ “bidding war” that followed.


The Churchmans have a small farm in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where sheep and other farm animals are photographic models. The Churchmans designed the unique and story-telling photographic labels that had endeared the former Shenandoah Valley Family Farms milk to communities caring about where their milk comes from and the story about the Virginia farm families behind its production.

When SVF closed its doors last year, the couple threw themselves into what had been on their dream list for a long time: A children’s book.

It began innocently enough. They often posted photos of their idyllic pastoral farm and its animals on their Facebook page, where friends and followers first met Sweet Pea.

“It really came about through social media,” said John in a phone interview this week. “We had developed a good following for Sweet Pea since she was a little orphan bottle lamb, so when she was injured, there was an outpouring of people wishing and following her recovery. We decided to do a book about it.”

They launched a “kick-starter” campaign and made the goal for a first edition printing in 15 hours. Their supporters then saw the creative process of the book take shape with the Churchmans’ regular Facebook posts at the Sweet Pea & Friends page.

John turned his photographs of the farm into unique illustrations and Jennifer wrote the story. They worked back and forth, fitting the images with the story and collaborating on how the book would look and feel.

Just as they had captured the authentic dairy farm life on the former SVF labels and related it to the authenticity of their milk, the Sheepover storybook is both magical and authentic.

The three-book deal with Little, Brown has them already working on book two with a different of their sheep — “the brave and mighty Finn.”

“We worked to make the best book we could, and did it thinking someday we’d have Sweet Pea press and grow our business out to do self-fulfillment of book orders,” John relates.

But when a nearby book store (The Flying Pig) showed their enthusiasm, the Churchmans realized they had something that hasn’t been seen before, in a style not seen before.

Reader feedback has conveyed how the book “gives them a sense of grounding in nature, a calm and safe place,” said Jennifer. “Children are connecting and understanding that animals have character and personality, that they form (herd) communities and have a whole world going on… and if we pay attention, we can watch their stories unfold.”

They also see the bond between animal and man, sustaining each other. The book also introduces children to fine art with John’s photo illustrations. “They invoke a sense of whimsy, but still convey a true story about real animals and real farms,” Jennifer noted.


Last week, the couple invited the friends and “kick-starters” to a special new barn lighting.

“We have a summer barn in the open pastures, but this is now their winter home, built with a floor plan, a cozy small monitor-style barn with an open format,” Jennifer explains. They designed the barn as a space to also hold events and invite the community and book fans.

“Instead of a Christmas tree lighting, we had this event as a moving-in of the sheep flock for the winter. We lit the barn with lights and wreathes and a tree,” Jennifer described, surprised to draw a couple hundred visitors instead of the 50 or 60 they expected.

“Instead of having the farm open to visitors, we are planning events for visitors to engage here,” Jennifer said. “After all, we have work to do. We are a working farm.”

Even if it is a storybook farm.



 See page 33 in Farmshine 


Photo captions – all photos by John Churchman


John and Jennifer

John and Jennifer Churchman were the designers of the former Shenandoah Valley Family Farms milk labels and they’ve realized a dream recently in completing a children’s book based on happenings at their small Vermont farm. Photo by John Churchman

SweetPeaBook and/or SweetPeaSpreads

Sweet Pea & Friends “The Sheepover” was self published by the Churchmans. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has now taken over the publishing and rushed it to market in time for Christmas. Check here to see who has it available Photo by John Churchman


Instead of a Christmas tree lighting, the Churchman hosted a couple hundred visitors last week for a barn lighting and the moving-in of the sheep flock for the winter. Photo by John Churchman




The deeply rooted tree

(George F. Curry Jr. Sept. 4, 1937 – Dec. 22, 2001)

Like the deeply rooted tree unleashing new blossoms of spring, Dad loved life. In his later years before the illness, he was an avid runner, taking in everything from 5k’s to marathons—even running 5 miles to work and home each day… He called running his “natural high.”


When we were growing up, Dad was the worrier, so it was surprising the way he let go of his worry and accepted my work with large animals. First it was the Vet-Science project at my 4-H leader’s farm. Then it was the work caring for camp horses and keeping them fresh with regular riding through the winter. Then it was the day I came home to tell him I took a job feeding and milking cows on a local dairy farm.

Dad didn’t understand these things that interested me, but he trusted me to do them just the same. After all, he had fostered my love for the written word and all those books were my windows to different worlds.

As a child, I devoured books about horses, cattle, the open sky. I would spend hours—whole afternoons—reading in makeshift grass forts between the greenhouses on the neighboring farm to the background buzz of grasshoppers until the evening chirp of katydid and cricket signaled it was time to walk home.

As I grew into my high school years, Dad never could understand why I would want to work on a farm milking cows or why I took so much of the money I earned through that hard work to buy and board and feed and shoe a horse.

He worked as a job foreman in the printing industry for RR Donnelly, where he started at age 16. It was his hope that we would all go to college and become ‘something more’ as he would say it.

But to me, my Dad was the king of adventures. He was the purveyor of the written word. He ran the presses, then planned the work that went onto them. He brought home magazines and books. He drove us to the library often. He would take us to work sometimes in the evening where we could look through the press over-runs for pictures and posters and covers. Indelible were the smell of the ink and the crisp feel of freshly printed pages. I always looked for the animals. My brother was thrilled with the baseball programs. RR Donnelley printed for the New York Yankees and that, of course, was my Dad’s favorite team.

Dad wanted us to be independent thinkers, and yet, my level of independence flustered him at times.

“You should be saving for college not that horse,” he would say as I worked 2 jobs—milking morning and afternoon and then selling shoes at a nearby department store in the evenings. Every free moment was spent at the farm where I boarded my horse, so I was rarely home.

But there came a point in time when his ways won out because I worked so much I had no time for the horse. Little did I know that what I learned through those early choices would shape my future.

I began to write more. I had whole journals of landscape poetry. I took my camera with me everywhere.

Before I had my license, it was my Dad who drove me most places. He didn’t understand my choices, but he enabled and facilitated them just the same. He always asked to read what I had written. Often I showed him… but not always.

And so, my work on the farm and love of writing converged. I think back on how Dad had ideals of what he wanted me to pursue, but supported my choices and allowed me to grow the path of my choosing.

He was the full tree of knowledge. The gnarled branches reached out an invitation to climb, and when I was weary, a sheltering refuge.


Years later, when my own children were small and I was between newspaper jobs, I worked as a temp in my father’s department at RR Donnelley. It was extra money we needed, and I could work my own hours—even nights—to save paying a sitter. I would see him from time to time in his work-a-day world, and I grew to know him differently. I felt a kind of sadness as digital technologies made parts of his work obsolete. But he was happy about the progress, excited to see change. He embraced it nonetheless.

Until the illness began—nearly imperceptible at first— like a late summer tree whose leaves begin to turn and before they can crumble and fall away, are blanketed by an unexpected autumn snow, falling before its time.


Even after the brain illness claimed his ability to walk and talk, he was interested in the world around him and how we had grown to find our place in it. Dad always believed he would get better, but he didn’t, that is until the day his Lord and Savior, brought him Home. Dad was a good and faithful servant, ministering to others in word and deed through Water Street Rescue Mission, a food, shelter and gospel ministry.

In those last few years, I was back at the newspaper and we had added a new monthly livestock edition to the weekly market report. It was printed in color. How his face would beam when I’d bring him a copy. Dementia was setting in, but he fought with all he had to hold it back. I asked him to help with the mailing at that time, and from his wheel chair, Dad would help me apply the address labels—a rote activity that he accepted as a blessing—a feeling of worth in his final days. We worked quietly.


This father’s day I thought back to how different my life might be if my Dad had not let me go; and I remember how hard it was that day before Christmas when we made the tough choice to honor his wishes to stop the machines and let him go.

That day was sunless, until evening, when light broke through the feathering clouds to reveal cold, bare branches—awaiting new life.

— By Sherry (Curry) Bunting