Put out to Pasture, Me or the Sheep?
Spring is an exciting time for the sheep because Winter is finally over and so ends a diet of hay and the spring grasses and legumes start to come up. As a shepherd, we try to manage our flocks so that the sheep can receive good nutrition from the land and rely less on costly hay. We want happy sheep and we want a profitable business too. Easier said than done of course.
For years I have been relying on one pasture that was already somewhat fenced when we moved in. (I say somewhat because it was old horse fence in need of repairs and woven wire added to keep sheep in. ) It wasn’t too bad because it was three acres and I only had a few sheep. But as my flock grew, the stress put on this one pasture grew, and as of last year, it could no longer support the flock. Last year, I had to buy hay all summer. So this last winter, I had to make a decision… Do I go smaller and sell a bunch of sheep? Or do I pass through the threshold of hobby farmer and decide to make this an actual farm.. One with real sustainable products, one that made full use of the resources in a planned and carefully managed way.
First I needed to answer some tough questions. Have I finally developed a unique and worthy product or products to sell? Am I done dabbling and ready to serious? Am I brave? Well, first the product. We now have two we are can now run with after the work and trial and error. First, our 1910 Shepherd Socks.
I have spent the last year and a half learning how to use our 100 year old Legare 400 sock machine. And last February, spent a week at the John C Campbell Folk School in North Carolina to build on those skills. We now offer made to order socks with different options in the cuffs, five natural colors and even ombre stripes. And the yarn used to make these socks is product #2. Five years of researching mills had finally gleaned that beautiful elusive fingering weight Shetland Yarn.
We introduced our Hilltop Shetland fingering weight yarn last week at Powhatan’s Festival of Fiber and it was our number one seller. We also posted a picture on Instagram and non other than famed yarn critic Clara Parks commented “true gorgeousness” . High praise indeed. So we have the products that we can run with, that is unique to my farm and can potentially sell quite well. What next?
Am I brave and ready to be a real farm business? It is scary, but I remind myself that having a fiber farm has been my dream for at least twenty years. It is the time to either go big or go home. And frankly, hobby farming is expensive. Most fiber farmers never get past the hobby stage. They might sell some products, trying different ideas, seeing what might stick, but never really making a profit or coming up with that one product or two they can create consistently with an ongoing growing market. Business farming can generate real revenue. For fiber, wool in particular, one has to have a goal of fulfilling a need. Our yarn is unique in that it is breed specific; Shetland with all the natural colors and strong softness…and it is a smooth fingering weight that works on the sock machines…one of the few if any American grown and milled yarns that do. I am excited to see how this yarn does in a national marketplace. And our socks, made with this yarn is a rare piece of clothing manufactured on the farm where the fiber is grown…from flock to feet.
OK…so the next steps was to add infrastructure to the farm to be able to rotate pasture to sustain the numbers it takes to produce this yarn and socks. And that means fencing and shoots to move the sheep with little stress on the sheep and headache for the shepherd. It means that the sheep can get nutrition mostly from pasture instead of hay, at least for three seasons of the year. So I posted a request on the Virginia Farm page on facebook asking for a good reliable fence builder. I did find one..and surprisingly quickly. And less than two weeks later, I have phase one done: new paddock around the barn with a shoot to it from the old pasture,
and the back pasture fenced into two sections with new gates.
I am over the moon… Especially yesterday when I was able to release my flock onto this pasture.
This is only the beginning… We have new fencing planned for next year. Using my tax refund to finance these projects. But future plans include a new barn and paddock at the back end of our back pasture, and new sock machines and an employee, probably in about two years. This will require some crowd funding. By then, hoping our yarn and socks will be off and running. So stay tuned.
Next step is to get my Etsy site redone and look for other means of selling our products. We will be posting our yarn in a few days… But you can order your socks here.
And we are posting on instagram with two hash tags to create some buzz… #flocktofeet and #knitvashetland
You can follow our progress by searching those hash tags, and please use those hash tags to share pics of your socked feet and projects with our yarn. Thanks for supporting our farm.