Farm Girl Confidential: Confessions of a Fiber Addict
I originally decided to buy a few sheep to keep the weeds down, make compost and grow better produce, and in the process I learned how to spin. I was innocent to what would happen next.
I knew little about sheep before I bought them, other than that using sheep (or other livestock) to turn weeds into plant-soluble nutrition is a pretty efficient system to supply “on-farm” organic compost, which many sustainable farmers find hard to come by these days on Cape Cod.
The sheep, as well as my chickens and ducks, come in handy clearing brush, keeping bugs at a low roar and disposing of leftovers. They all run together, basically cleaning up after one another and fertilizing as they go. After attending Joel Salatin’s presentation on the attributes of utilizing animals in grazing systems at the Tilton Arts Center in October, I can now justify the appearance my nonconforming yard in the middle of residencia. Salatin made a good point when he said, “Don’t deny the plow on the end of a pig’s nose.” And so as I write this, my rams are cleaning out the perennial gardens and knocking down a few unwanted trees.
Along with fire, grazing livestock is the oldest vegetation management tool. Today, livestock grazing is being rediscovered as a viable and effective tool to address contemporary vegetation management challenges, like controlling invasive, exotic weeds and finding chemical-free ways to control weeds in organic agriculture. Perhaps NSTAR could find grazing livestock the solution for their weed control under the power lines instead of applying a cocktail mixture of dangerous herbicides.
But after a year of spending hours walking my sheep around town to graze, buying feed and mucking out the barn, I had to come up with some other value-added uses. So off I went to the local Cape Cod Spinners Guild determined to learn to spin wool into gold.
Harvesting wool falls right in line with sustainable farming; wool is truly a renewable resource. Sheep produce this unique fiber through the conversion of natural resources that might otherwise be wasted. Everyone that I met at my first Spinners Guild meeting was delightful. Beth Deck from Not Enough Acres Farm was the only person I knew. (I had met her at the Jerico House Museum and The Dennis Manse, where she freely gives her time giving spinning demonstrations during the Dennis Historical Society’s Skills Days every August.)
It was a cold winter day that first meeting, and everyone sat huddled by the fire in a small living room of a member’s house busily tending to her knitting project or spinning at her wheel. No small talk during a meeting, just total immersion in spinning, dying, knitting, felting, a new fleece or a new pattern.
I tried to break into the conversation, but knew so little about spinning and knitting that I chose to talk about my favorite subject, sheep, and my two rams, Abraham and Cookie. One member in particular was intrigued by the fact that I had chosen two rams as my first sheep, knowing already what I would learn later, that they are as dangerous as a bucking bull at a rodeo. She took me under her wing and offered to lend me a wheel and set me up with some fiber. I took her address and made plans to meet.
As I turned down her drive, I was surrounded by more alpaca, sheep and goats than I had known existed on Cape Cod. There were billy goats with five-foot horn spreads that looked like characters from Billy Goat Gruff. Exotically strange, long-necked animals that reminded me of ET lined the fence. My mentor greeted me enthusiastically at the door and began a guided tour of strange contraptions with odd names like heddles, swifts, ballwinders, beaters and bobbins. Antique iron sock machines, looms, various types of spinning wheels—both ancient and modern—filled the main room of the house. There were boiling pots of dyes steaming on the stove and colorful skeins of yarn draped over ladderback chairs. We went downstairs to where a strange rumble and hum emerged. Large, overflowing bags of multicolored wool lined the path to a picker, a carder and various other gigantic iron and wood wool-processing machines that my new friend and her husband had bought from an old mill in Fall River and restored. How they ever got them into a cellar in hilly Brewster is beyond imagination.
That day I left her house hauling bags of wool and a spinning wheel. She said to me, as had all the members, to just try, that I would get it in no time. I just needed to bring home a wheel and spin. Little did I know that what had already happened to most of the women at the meeting was about to happen to me: obsessive-compulsive wool collecting. Never again would I be able to pass a sheep’s fleece or a skein of homespun yarn without touching it, smelling it, stuffing a piece of it in my pocket to run home and try spinning or knitting it— a trait too familiar to all wool addicts.
It took about a week of tangling the fleece around the spinning wheel and losing the end on the bobbin, before I plied my first yarn. “Fabulous,” said all my new spinning friends, “now, here’s some more fiber.” Within a month I had collected so much fiber that I found it difficult to find enough room to store it. But that didn’t stop me. Next I started collecting sheep, one with a fawn coat, one chocolate brown, another spotted black and white like a cow. Although there is a movement gaining a foothold all across America called “Yard Farming,” my neighbors hadn’t yet caught wind of it and found it quite curious to see sheep grazing in our front yard, and washed fleeces, looking like dead animals, drying on the clothesline. One hundred years ago it would have been normal. Sheep have been a part of the American agricultural landscape since their introduction into the country by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. In the early American colonies, restrictions on the right to raise sheep and produce woolen textiles contributed to the American Revolution. By 1810, the U.S. had a thriving woolen textile industry in New England, and sheep were a familiar sight in the countryside.
Knitting was a challenge for me, but at last (being a sailor at heart), I realized it was no different than wrapping half hitches on stanchions or tying a bowline, only it was on sticks. My first scarf was from Abraham the ram’s oatmeal colored wool. He looked quite sharp in it.
Adding value-added products to my farm became my next obsession. I began making pipe cleaner sheep. I brought them to Jean’s Country Barn in Harwichport. Jean sells an unusual variety of homemade country gifts and primitive home decor and gladly buys homespun and local products. Over the past few years, my little sheep have evolved into a lucrative winter product. Next, I offered them at my online store at www.LocalHarvest.org. During fall and winter months I sell as many as I can make. What started out as pipe cleaner bodies wrapped in roving and fashioned into cute little sheep with a ribbon and bell around their neck, have now become a variety of large, multicolored, lock-covered breeds of sheep on wheels.
Many local farms offer creative valueadded products that make great holiday gifts: E&T Farms in West Barnstable sells spectacular beeswax candles and salves made by their own bees; Not Enough Acres’ honey and homespun yarns are available at The Ladybug Yarn Shop in Dennis; Biltmore Wool Barn in Brewster offers dyed and natural rovings and yarns that are available at LocalHarvest.org; and Summerhouse Natural Soaps in Barnstable has a wide range of fabulous beauty care products made with natural, local ingredients available on their website at www.summerhousesoaps.com.
I spent four days in August (the middle of the growing season) learning how to make traditional Turkish rugs and garments from a woman visiting from Shropshire, England, in hopes of being able to add them to my offerings. But still, what other value-added products were there from sheep? How about sheep themselves?
In the hope that a few blue ribbons might bring both my sheeps’ wool and their offspring recognition, I decided to begin showing mine at agricultural fairs. I was so busy growing lettuce that I forgot to send my entry form in on time for the Barnstable County Fair this past summer and missed it. I called a friend, Abraham’s breeder and head of The Massachusetts Farm Bureau, Doug Gillespie, and asked where I could go to show the sheep. He told me there was a nice little fair in Bolton, Massachusetts, so I packed up the truck with the three ewes, a cookstove, a down quilt and a few pillows and left the overwhelming market season behind for a few days. I brought my own eggs, some nice coffee and a loaf of Pain D’Avignon bread. It was the beginning of our one and only heat wave, and by the time I got to the Bolton Fair it was 95 degrees without a breath of wind.
I ran into a few other people I knew from the Cape and some people I had been conversing with online through a Shetland Sheep forum. Pat Huckery, a sheep and wool lover from Bolton who raises Shetland sheep with her daughters and who is a participant in the 4-H offshoot group called The Good Shepherds Club, introduced me to the 4-H kids. They were wonderful, helping other exhibitors as well as showing their own sheep. You never have enough hands at a show, and the kids would come into the ring, straighten up legs, handle extra sheep and help me learn about showmanship. That night they came over to the truck and invited the sheep and me to a cookout over by the sheep trailers. It was quite a feast! I was welcomed wholeheartedly into their group, and I felt like I had been there a thousand times before. For kids, growing up with livestock is an indispensible experience. It teaches them to be responsible without them even knowing that it was a lesson learned. I don’t know what kind of person I would have become without having to care for animals.
I had been worried that it would be a hard sleep in the back of the truck in 95-degree heat, with mosquitoes buzzing and the bleating of sheep. I had cleaned out the truck bed after unloading the sheep, fluffed out some fresh straw, laid a big piece of cardboard on it and spread out my down quilt and pillows. I slept like a dream with the sheep tied to the tailgate. At dawn I made coffee, eggs and toast on the tailgate. 4-H-ers, up at dawn to wash down and groom their cows, passed by. I grazed the ewes on a hillside filled with orchard grass, Birdsfoot trefoil, clover and rye. I left the fair with a first-, second- and third-place ribbon and had had such a wonderful reprieve from farming that I didn’t want to leave. With Ruby’s (my Natural Colored sheep) head hanging through the open window into the cab I drove the two hours back to the Cape. The Topsfield Fair was coming, so I sent in my entry form as soon as I got home. The “show fever” had started.
This time, sheets of rain in a 40-knot gale opened the first day of the Topsfield Fair in October. To my novice surprise, almost everyone I had met in Bolton was there showing sheep; it was like a family reunion. Jim and Sue Knieriem from Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm in Yarmouth Port were also there with their daughter, showing cows. My daughter Alexandria came along with me to help, it was her first show. We brought three sheep, and Alex got first prize, to her absolute delight. She then competed for Champion Ewe and got a first place rosette. The two Shetlands got a first in Best Pair and our third sheep, Ruby, got second in the Natural Colored class. We can’t wait for next season and my 2010 summer and fall calender is already blocked off with fair dates. This fall all the ewes were bred and by late March we’ll have a whole new crop of lambs to show. Farming with livestock couldn’t be more entertaining.
Animal welfare is the foundation of small farm organic livestock production. The “whole systems approach” to agriculture, which incorporates nature’s wisdom into the process of farming, necessitates the use of livestock. If we are to have any degree of food self-reliance or role in preserving the social health of our community, we will need to do a little rallying at our town meetings and let our town leaders know that we need and want more livestock in our communities. Perhaps we could return to common grazing as once existed at Crow’s Pasture. Zoning laws have changed drastically and few agriculturally-zoned areas remain. Like nature itself, the local food movement is organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town and culture, and is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide. Within this movement, we must reimagine our relationship with animals and the environment.
The local food movement can be defined as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies, one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.” (Feenstra, G., Creating space for sustainable food systems: Lessons from the field. Agriculture and Human Values, Volume 19, Number 2, 2002.) The latest USDA Census Of Agriculture claims that $1.2 billion stayed in local communities as a result of farmers markets and direct small farm sales, bringing new life to towns all across America. But is the food movement really having an impact on how we think or eat? How can we tell whether the issues surrounding our food system are really making their way into the public consciousness? The current interest in using conservation land for sustainable farming here on Cape Cod is a good indication that we are moving quickly in the right direction.
Livestock produce a lot more that just fertilizer, milk and meat, as good as that is. Even their by-products enhance the community with everything from goat’s milk soap to yarn. I can’t decide which is the best part about livestock. All I know is that they’re real valueadded fun.
Veronica Worthington left the comforts of a beautiful home in West Dennis (driven mad by her extended family who live in the house) and now resides in a hayloft above her five noisy sheep and smelly ducks.