Tending a Flock of Hope

The Kotrba family — Lynn, Jason and their eight children — care for 40 head of sheep, a miniature horse, two llamas, pigs and assorted chickens at Harvest Hope Farm north of Moorhead. (Photos/Russ Hanson)


Nancy Edmonds Hanson

When Jason and Lynn Kotrba found the farmstead of their dreams a few miles north of Moorhead, they were thinking first of the right place to raise their seven children.

But Harvest Hope Farm has come to nurture far more than one flock of happy, healthy youngsters since the family moved there five years ago. Today Lynn and Jason – both with careers dedicated to youth – are raising sheep with a special purpose in life: They may hold the key to finding a treatment or even a cure for the mysterious hereditary condition known as Huntington’s disease.

“At first, we just wanted more space for our kids to run and be active,” says Lynn. The 13 acres included a farmstead, pasture and 9 wooded acres around a coulee and pond. “We had longed for more space. We knew this was our perfect forever home.”

That was the beginning of what’s become a multi-faceted mission seemingly disparate goals – helping find a cure for the rare but devastating genetic condition that runs in Lynn’s famly, and providing the techno-driven younger generation with an introduction to sustainable farming and all the mental health benefits of nurturing the land.

Before they took on the task of raising special sheep, the elder Kotrbas were already laying the groundwork for a different kind of flock – their summer day camp for boys and girls from 6 to 13, Harvesting Hope for Others Farm Camp. Campers spend 90 minutes every Wednesday tending the sheep and other critters plus planting and caring for box gardens. The vegetables they harvest are given to families in need – not necessarily financial, but under emotional strain from medical crises or the death of a parent.

But Lynn sensed they had an even greater purpose out there. “As I walked every day in our woods,” she says, “I began having visions … of sheep.”

Now, raising sheep wasn’t part of either her or her husband’s vision. “We never wanted sheep. We hadn’t given them a thought,” she recalls. But when the deeply religious woman timidly shared her visions with her husband, he didn’t scoff: “Instead, he told me, ‘You should listen to what God is telling you. This may be our plan.’”

Sheep had special meaning for her after all. The youngest of a family of six growing up in East Grand Forks, Lynn lost her mother to Huntington’s disease when she was 13. Death is the invariable end of the rare genetic disorder’s progress; as nerve cells in the brain die from a deficiency of a substance normally manufactured by the body, its victims develop movement, thinking and psychological problems.

“No one wanted to talk about it,” Lynn remembers. “It was the white elephant in the middle of the room.” But that changed when her oldest sister began showing symptoms. She died in 2011.

Lynn’s niece – who could also be at risk – learned of promising research being conducted in South Dakota. All mammals manufacture a substance called GM1 ganglioside; when humans don’t create enough of their own, it results in Huntington’s (as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurologic conditions). The South Dakota researchers had found that GM1 abounds in sheep with a particular genetic makeup; they were harvesting the oline (sheep) GM1 from those lambs’ brains, spinal cords and livers. Twenty years of research showed great promise of it leading to a treatment or even a cure for the human disease.

Lynn and Jason contacted Shepherd’s Hope for GM1 and purchased their first group of ewes that carried a gene that caused their offspring to produce 40 times the normal amount of ganglioside. They brought them back to Clay County … knowing nothing at all about raising livestock.

“So many times, things have just come together,” she recounts. She happened to mention her interest in sheep to another mother while waiting to pick up her kids after school. That friend, Kim Vonnahme, turned out to be a professor of animal sciences at NDSU and became the Kotrba flock’s godmother.

Today that flock has more than doubled. Each spring, samples of the ewes’ twins or triplets’ blood are sent to South Dakota, where the research staff identifies those with the super-productive GM1 gene. “They’re getting very positive results in research on mice,” she says, and hope to soon move to human trials.

In the meantime, the rest of the Kotrbas’ vision is falling into place. In addition to Harvesting Hope Farm Camp, they have put together another day camp program for little ones from 3 to 5. Its Wednesday afternoon session center on the beloved children’s picture book series by Anna Dewdney, “Llama Llama.” Like the farm camp, the midweek sessions include an introduction to farm animals, plants and the joys of the outdoors. But what would it be without llamas? Lynn and Jason acquired two of the gentle beasts in July.

Using social media and word of mouth, their camps were blossoming until the pandemic placed limits this summer. They’re planning for more sessions in 2021. For information on enrolling campers, go to their website, www.harvesthopefarm.org.

Nor are adults neglected. Several faith-based features are available for those seeking inspiration or meditation, including a Rosary Walk through the woods. Harvest Hope Farm is sponsoring a Christmas event on Dec. 11, 12 and 13, too – “O Holy Night,” featuring a live Nativity scene in the barn, Christmas carols and a wander in the woods along Christmas Lane.

Along with their growing outdoor experiences, Lynn has high hopes for their participation in the Shepherd’s Gift research, which could have enormous impact on her and her family. Like her three surviving sisters, she has declined to be tested for the Huntington’s gene; only her brother has taken that step. He tested negative.

“Since Mom got sick, I’ve known I wanted to do something to impact Huntington’s and the families it affects,” she says. “Harvest Hope is our way to try to do what we can.

“The disease used to be a daily fear for me, but I don’t worry about it so much now,” she reflects. “Now, I can see hope and progress out there. This research has been going on for 29 years. It’s good to be a part of it. When I look out at our sheep, I know there’s huge potential that they could be a part of curing Huntington’s disease. It gives me – us – a lot of hope.”

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