Monthly Archives: June 2013

It’s that time of year again

This is how the big boys do it. I process the Shetland Wool grown on Sweet Tree Hill Farm at Central Virginia Fiber Mill and work with Mary, the owner, in the sorting and decision making as we develop the yarn, roving and felt that will become our farm products.

The wool season 2013 has finally kicked off after a pretty poor start to the year weather-wise. Stuart is back through in the wool store most of the time helping Derek and Oliver and even Ella has been having a go at hand-grading the wool and baling it up. Load 1 of 12 will be leaving us very shortly to head off to the scourers and then the fun begins as most of Shetland’s wool pours into us from all over the islands.

We handle roughly 80% of Shetland’s clip which is about 250 tonnes of new wool. After the wool is dropped off by one of our 700-800 suppliers and weighed in, each fleece has to be hand-graded and sorted into its various colours and one of 5 grades; from Superfine to Rough. This can include dividing up a single fleece into various grades, as Shetland wool can contain fine…

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The Perils of Cora Belle

Each year, it seems we have one lamb that really touches our heart. Last year it was Wally, the orphan lamb who loved to be loved and gave love in return by numerous lamby kisses. This year, it is Cora Belle. She was one of the last ones born and she was the smallest. She has grown a bit but still the smallest. Now we have been in the process of training our guardian dog, Nisa to accept the lambs and not see them as playmates. She has done pretty well except when it came to Cora Belle. I guess because she was the smallest and probably the slowest. Well, during moments when I was not focused the pasture, Nisa decided she wanted to play with this lamb. It happened soon after she was born. I was worried the little lamb was traumatized as she looked a bit dazed, but no physical signs of harm. I gathered her mother, Poppy and her sister Camelia and they continued bonding in the safe confines of a stall.

Cora Belle rebounded and while back in the pasture, she got stronger and participated in lamby games such as follow the leader and relay races across the pasture with her lamb cousins. She was still the smallest, but held her own. Now every time I would to a pasture check, I would always make sure that Cora Belle was in her mother’s care. During these checks, I discovered Cora Belle’s independent streak. Often she would be off exploring on her own. And she would only take note of where the rest of the flock was when her mother would be bellowing frantic calls for her baby. I felt for Poppy. It is hard to parent a child who marches to a different drummer.

Well, after the shearing of the adult sheep and the tagging and vaccinations of the babies, I thought I would try Nisa again. I had put her through training sessions with lambs and she seemed to have gotten it. But again, as soon as my back was turned, Nisa went after her favorite lamb, Cora Belle. This time, more damage occurred. She tore off her ear tag and gave her an abrasion on her thigh. I discovered this during my pasture check. I tried to catch her, but the injury did not effect her ability to run.  I tried for a couple of days with no luck. I was getting worried that an infection might happen, or equally dire, fly strike. Finally today, I noticed she was limping. Ok, this was it, I was going to catch her regardless of hell or high water. I took a look at the sky and noted the very dark clouds on the horizon. Well, we might be getting a bit of hell and high water very soon. So time would be short, I went inside to retrieve my 16 year old  son and member of the Cumberland High School track team. I figured with the limp Cora Belle might be easier to catch. My conclusion was not correct. The limp did not seem to affect her speed. We raced across the pasture, trying to corner her, anticipating her moves. Boy that lamb can change direction on a dime. Despite my burning lungs, it did my heart good she could move this fast. She must not be that bad. But I had to check her up close so I could stop worrying.

We finally had cornered her in a small dead end section of our corral. I still could mot see her injury clearly. At this moment I realized I had lost my glasses during the pursuit. I had taken a spill in the tall grass. Some Ian went to find them. I took the little one in the house to clean her wound. Putting on the found glasses, I saw her injury was larger than I thought. She had a large scab over most of her thigh and it had opened up. I cleaned her leg with peroxide and then put a big dose of iodine on it.


Ian showing Cora Belle' s wound

I realized that in order to prevent fly strike, I would need to cover the wound. So checking my first aid kit, found large gauze pads left over from my hubby’s broken collar bone recovery ( a story for another time.) Just the right size. And with some semi-expert skill, managed to adhere the gauze to the lamb’s thigh. After a penicillin shot for good measure, little Cora Belle is recuperating in her makeshift hospital, one of the stalls in the barn.


Cora Belle with her bandage.

Out in the pasture, Poppy is calling for her lost baby. A little baahing answer comes from inside the barn. I wish they could be together, but some healing needs to take place first. I know Cora Belle would appreciate a few prayers thrown her way. A little lamb with her spunk is a treasure.


Cora Belle and a very concerned shepherd.

The Dollars and Sense of Shepherding

Deciding to be shepherd is an emotional decision. And of course a lifestyle one too. These go hand in hand. For me it starts with the love of fiber animals. And when I say love, I mean warts and all. There is a messy side to shepherding along with the romantic side of sweet lambs and ewes peacefully grazing in a lovely pasture. The care does mean you get dirty. Handling a very wet new born to dip umbilical cords in iodine come to mind. And add to that catching sheep for shearing, hoof trimming and shots will add a good shower to your schedule. Love means accepting sheep, rabbits and goats, just as they are.


Shearing Day a couple of weeks ago.

Accepting the bad along with the good is a must for a farmer. And the good parts are so very worth noting.  I get to work with incredible animal and their fleeces. I partner with nature in providing a good productive environment where these animals can live out their lives. I feel this is a high calling. Sharing the experience and value of farming to my kids and the community is also part of my goals and benefits. Taking a raw commodity like wool and creating high quality products and bringing them to the market place is exciting to me too.


Our first over festival last Aprill.

Farming is free enterprise and entrepreneurship at its core and the economic base in the formation of this country. Farming created the hard working self reliant ethic that propelled American exceptionalism that attracted the world to our shores. And fiber farming was essential in colonial America. I celebrate and keep alive fiber arts like spinning, knitting, weaving and embroidery. Farming allows me to share the hand crafted products from these pursuits. I feel shepherding is a worthy occupation.

Each would be shepherd needs to take off the rose colored glasses and look at the business side of things. The things needed to farm can be expensive, such as land, fencing, shelter, hay and grain, a shearer’s services, a mill’s services, the animals themselves, marketing the products. And more. I have looked at these challenges and know that I face competition. I face all of this with many tools. Maintaining high standards in product production, creativity in marketing and caring about who is purchasing my products are some of these tools. There are many skills and I come to the party with many, but much is learned along the way and taking time to educate myself in the things I don’t know is required. One area I focus on is social networking. This is one marketing venue farmers of old did not have. And one that continues to change and evolve. It is in this farmer’s best interest to stay current. So that means Facebook, blogs, websites and web stores like Etsy. Add to that being a vender at fiber festivals and there is a learning curve there.  Creating a farm in the 21st Century is an amazing adventure for sure.

As my production increases, one marketing idea’s time has come. And that is the CSA. Community Supported Agriculture is a nifty idea that involves the farm’s customer in the operation of the farm, creating a more intimate relationship. I really like this idea because I like sharing what I do more directly with folks. We are creating a farm membership with perks. And these perks will evolve and grow as the farm grows. So we just introduced our CSA in our farm store

We now have about 30 sheep and we are shearing twice a year. We are taking fleeces to the mill about twice a year to produce our mill products like natural colored worsted yarn, soon a sock yarn, roving for spinners and felt for producing my embroidered products. I am taking some of the roving and yarn and hand dying some of it to go along with the variety of natural colors. So we have a regular schedule of mill production. Add to that is hand spun yarn and custom carding. And we have a good solid production rate to support the CSA. Our members will get information as new products arrive, they get 20% off any product in the farm store plus they get their choice of any four skeins of yarn or six bags of fiber. Coming soon are original patterns to go with this yarn. And those are free to members.


2 patterns using our Hilltop Shetland Yarn.

I think any knitter, weaver, spinner or felter interested in supporting a family farm okraising their fiber would be interested in this opportunity. The challenge is getting the word out. And getting people to touch and try this Shetland yarn. I cannot explain in words how lovely this Shetland is.

I hope anyone considering farming has found some food for thought here. Let me me know your thoughts and ideas. Would love to continue the conversation.

A Shepherd’s Reflection.

Farming is an occupation, or dare I say a life’s work, that is very influenced by the seasons. And some touch me more than others. At this moment, this edge of Spring into Summer is one of my favorites. You see there is a pause. We have completed lambing, prepared and attended a fiber festival, finished shearing, hoof trimming, vaccines and tagging. We are getting geared up for summer chores, such as fencing, getting our garden going, planning our trip to the mill to prepare fleeces for another festival. So I can breath a bit. The grasses have fully recovered from last year’s drought. In fact, bush hogging is on the list for the to do’ s. So I don’t have to feed hay, one less chore and expense.

I take a bit of time for myself and enjoy the bounty of the farm. The weather is warmer, but the evenings are still cooler and the humidity is low. The honeysuckle is perfuming the air with sweet notes. The barn swallows are darting around gathering nest building materials. The chickens are busy scratching in my yet to be planted gardens, taking care of some tilling, clucking in conversation. My rooster has thoroughly cleaned out the debris from my flower pots. Lilies and irises are blooming attracting butterflies.

So I decide to take some time to myself now that the sun is staying up longer. After the rabbits are fed and I close up the dye studio, I pull out my swim suit, a boogie board, beach chair and kindle and head down to the fishing pier. The Rocket Man tags along to serve as lifeguard. I walk down through the sheep pasture, with the tall grass tickling my thighs. The pond greets me as I kick off my flip flops. I love the texture of the worn wooden boards of the fishing pier. I open my chair and settle the kindle and my towel into it. The Rocket Man settles into his watchful position.


The Rocket Man is my pond side lifeguard

Frogs add to the bird’s chorus. I attach the strap of the boogie board to my wrist and I ease down the dock ladder into the cool water.


My new dock ladder.

At this moment I am thanking God I was blessed this spring fed pond. I use the blog is board to float past a few lilipads and once in clear water, I abandon the board and begin a slow steady breast stroke out to the middle, board following behind via the strap. After about a hundred and thirty yards, I turn back, and use the board when I run out of breath . I do about five or six laps of this, allowing my mind to think of nothing but the birds that collect bugs on the water’s surface ahead of me, or the smell of the honeysuckle, or the sunlight flickering on the tiny wake left by my very slow swimming strokes. This is my mini-vacation from, well, everything. From the chores, the bills, the orders that never seem to get done fast enough. But we all have that stuff don’t we? I love that I can get away in my back yard.

So as I climb out of my pond, I look forward to drying off in the sun, in my beach chair, reading my latest book on my kindle.


View from my beach chair.

Rocket also takes a sun bath. Soon, I take a deep breath and promise myself to add wine to the experience next time, and I head up the hill through the tall grass. The sheep are playing their version of Marco Polo as mama ewes try to locate their lambs.



The walk up to my house after my swimming vacation.

I am loving country life at this moment as I enter the real world again, wondering what I have to cook for dinner.


Sheep are following me wondering if I have dinner for them too.

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