Special Occasions: Talkin’ ’bout Sweet Seasons

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Sheep, antiques, an open-air barn and laid-back atmosphere make this family farm a charmingly Southern setting for a variety of social events.

story by OLIVIA GRIDER | photography by MONICA DOOLEY | styling by SUZANNE MANNING MARTENSON of Stems & Styles

A gentle breeze is blowing and the shadow of tall pines in a nearby grove are lengthening across the rolling hills as the sun sets at Sweet Seasons farm in Valley Head, Ala. Each blade of grass glistens yellow in the late-afternoon light, and on the far side of the meadow, the sheep are grazing, their two canine guardians blending in with the herd. My 11-year-old son has found the tree swing, and from that perch, he watches the sheep.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]I’m sitting under the antique chandeliers and tin roof of the event barn with owners Richard and Paulette Manning, who are explaining how one of Alabama’s oldest and largest sheep farms got its name.

When the two were dating, they both liked the song “Sweet Seasons” by folk artist Carole king. “Richard said, ‘when we have our farm, I want to call it Sweet Seasons,” Paulette, 64, recalls.

The couple did just that with the 93 acres they bought in 1971. The land adjoined the farm has been in Richard’s family more than a century, and the name is fitting, Paulette says, because the place is pretty throughout the seasons. in the ’90s, Richard, 65, inherited part of his parents’ farm, bringing Sweet Seasons’ total acreage to about 200.

The Mannings have been raising sheep for almost 30 years, and grass-fed lamb production is the cornerstone of their family-owned and operated business. but the enterprise they began three years ago – offering Sweet Seasons as an event venue – has gained popularity rapidly.

The event barn can host up to 300 people and is available for family and class reunions, birthday parties and corporate events. About 90 percent of its bookings, however, are weddings.

Sweet Seasons hosts only one event per weekend. Those reserving the space can use it from noon on Friday through Sunday. Most event venues are available for a maximum of 10 hours, Paulette says. “Our venue is really comfortable and laid-back,” she says. “by having that extra time, it makes it a lot less stressful for the bride, the mother and everyone.”

Weddings typically are held in the meadow, with receptions following in the event barn. reservations include use of the event barn’s tables and chairs (seating for 75 plus tables for food, cakes, gifts, etc.), a commercial kitchen for a caterer on Saturday night and the “Shabby Sheep” bridal Suite, which offers plenty of space for the bride and her party to prepare for the big day.

Most families holding weddings at the farm are from cities, Paulette says. “This is really something different for them to see,” she explains. The free-ranging sheep play a role in events as well. “That’s our big draw with our venue – it’s the sheep,” Paulette says. “Most people want the sheep right there.”

In keeping with the family-operated history of Sweet Seasons, the Mannings’ children are involved with the event business as well. Justin Manning, 36, a designer with playground-equipment manufacturer PlayCore in fort Payne, Ala., made many of the farm-style tables in the event barn, and Suzanne Manning Martenson, 39, who owns florist and event-planning company Stems & Styles in Birmingham, Ala., helps with decorating.

The bridal suite also is home to part of Paulette’s vintage antiques collection – available for rent as props for weddings and other events – as well as items she has created through “repurposing.” a cowboy boot made into a lamp, for example, and a pipe from an old chicken house welded and painted to create a stand where brides can hang their clothes.

Like everything else at Sweet Seasons, the items are beautifully rustic and classically Southern, and I’m awed by Paulette’s creative talent and vision.

She has an entire barn full of her antique finds, gathered from auctions, estate sales and yard sales and also available for rent. Things like vintage suitcases that can be opened and used to hold silverware at receptions as well as old chalkboards and lanterns that can be incorporated into event décor. “I’ve got all kinds of old things,” Paulette says. “My sister-in-law called me a picker before ‘American Pickers’ [the TV show] came out. I’ve been doing this for years. it’s kind of like an addiction to me.”

While Paulette and I discuss weddings, Richard disappears momentarily, then reappears driving a red Kawasaki utility vehicle and whisks my son and daughter and a border collie named kip over the meadow to visit the sheep. They return after petting the sheep, watching Kip and a German shorthair named Finn Move the herd according to Richard’s commands and stopping off at the dove house. (My daughter can’t stop talking about the baby doves they saw.)

White doves are released as part of wedding ceremonies. The birds rise into the air and flock across the meadow, back to their home. Richard takes a seat to tell me more about the working-farm side of Sweet Seasons. The farm’s sheep are Katahdin hair sheep, a breed developed specifically for meat production, and Sweet Seasons sells to distributors who work with restaurants and grocery-store chains throughout the country.

“These are not woolies that produce wool for sweaters,” Richard says. “These are just for meat.”

The sheep shed their hair and produce less lanolin than wool breeds, resulting in a sweeter, milder meat. lambs consume nothing but their mother’s milk and the herbs, forbs, clovers and sweet grasses they find on the farm. Sweet Seasons does not feed grain to the sheep or feed animals in confinement. No chemicals or herbicides are used on the farm.

“Our goal is to work with nature,” Richard says. “We care about the environment and strive to take good care of our animals and our land.”

The flock currently numbers around 600, and all the ewes were born at the farm. Sweet Seasons also offers commercial breeding stock for sale.

Richard’s ancestors grew corn and cotton, subjecting the land to erosion, but his father, a rural mail carrier who farmed “by the headlights,” realized the rolling hills were better suited to grass and livestock production.

Richard, who spent 32 years as the office manager for the DeKalb County farm Service agency (part of the U.S. department of agriculture), also farmed by the headlights, working his regular job by day and farming during his free time. The 93 acres he and Paulette purchased had been neglected for 25 to 30 years and bore no resemblance to a farm in 1971. Now, the Event Barn is located in this space.

“Everything you see here – every road, fence, barn – we put it here,” Richard says. “This has been my golf and my tennis. But really, I’m not working; I’m having fun.”

Richard says he appreciated growing up on a farm. “it was fantastic,” he says. “i always loved to grow things, whether it’s plants or animals.”

He jokes that he got into sheep farming to raise dogs – and it’s pretty much true.

When he began raising stocker cattle, which have to be moved often, he realized he needed dogs to help him. he was told sheep were good for training the dogs, and they were. he also found out sheep were more profitable than cattle. “So we just transitioned out of cattle into sheep around 1985,” he says.

Crickets are chirping and the sky has turned the blue-gray of evening when we reluctantly rise to leave this serene little paradise. even in the deepening darkness, the sheep are still visible – white specks against a distant black hillside.

The Mannings are rightfully proud of what they’ve created through 30 years of sweat and hard work. “It’s a legacy we’re hoping to leave our kids,” Paulette says. “I’m hoping when we’re gone, they can come up here and keep this going.”

Justin

It runs in the family

Justin Manning has inherited his mother Paulette’s creative talent and knack for breathing new life into old or discarded materials.

A showroom of his work, which he sells under the name “Creo” (the Latin word for “to create”), at Sweet Seasons includes hypertufa plant containers, decorative concrete pieces made from molds of real objects like leaves and rocks, etched zinc portraits and signs and artistic furniture and other pieces made from reclaimed wood, metal and concrete.

Richard Manning gestures at a beautiful coffee table and recalls the day Justin brought a bunch of battered shipping pallets to the farm. “‘Son, that’ll just be for me to pile up and burn one day,’” he says he told him. “I’ve eaten my words so many times,” he continues, shaking his head.

Justin built the bars at Innisfree Irish Pub in Birmingham, Ala., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. He also teaches hypertufa classes. All this is in addition to his full-time job as a designer at PlayCore in Fort Payne, Ala. Apparently he’s inherited his father’s “by-the-headlights” work ethic, too.

To learn more about Justin’s work, see creoconcrete.com. To visit the Creo showroom at Sweet Seasons, call 256-635-6791 or 256-997-7919.

Plan Your Event

Interested in holding an event at Sweet Seasons? Here’s what you need to know.

When: The Event Barn is available mid- April through mid-November.

Where: Sweet Seasons is located at 2339 County Road 608, Valley Head, AL. Call beforehand to schedule a visit.

Get in touch: 256-635-6791 or sweetseasonsfarm@yahoo.com

More info: sweetseasonsfarm.com

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