Category Archives: Farming philosophy
Anyone who knows me, knows I am mad about the Outlander series, first the books and now the television series. And not just because of a hunky Scott… Oh shame on you for thinking it… No, it is mostly because I love history, especially Scottish history. I love reading and discovering what everyday life was like, especially for women and especially regarding textile production. It is not by accident I chose the Shetland breed of sheep to raise, or love to listen to Celtic music. I even took up the fiddle at age ten. And choosing to live in a 100 year old house has a special charm to me as I sometimes speak to the ghosts within its walls to ask advise or just enjoy the companionship.
This fascination with fiber began back when I took a weaving class in highschool, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. My teacher, Betty Johnson has no idea what treasure she brought to me, what world she opened up. It began a quest of self study, that has become my life’s work.
Now to the phenomenon of Outlander… The cool thing about it is that the central character does what I have been trying to do for decades, experience another time, smell the smells, see life through other eyes in another time. That is what learning how to knit and spin, animal husbandry, weaving, embroidery is all about for me, experience the fiber past, but in my own time.
During the colonial period, since England refused to allow colonists to purchase yard goods from any country except England, it became expensive. So many households went into production for themselves and their neighbors, growing flax, raising sheep, and processing the fiber, then creating clothing, bedding, curtains and most of the everyday needs of the household. We don’t know a lot of the details because these tasks were mostly left to the women and children and recording their tasks, how and what they did to contribute was not considered important history. Of course we know it is important. Often the economy of a village was based on bartering of these home produced goods. An excellent book was discovered then formatted with additional information called “A Tale of a Midwife” . One of my favorite books. This diary was discovered in a Maine archive and it chronicled a midwife named Martha in her daily chores of attending to the doctoring of her town and her fiber business she ran with her daughters during the late 1700’s. It was mostly in the form of record keeping, but what a wealth of information! I stumbled upon this book over ten years ago in a little Charlottesville book store during one of my little anniversary weekends with my husband.
So at times, I feel a kindred spirit in Martha. I juggle two careers as well… Instead of midwifery, I am a travel agent, and I own and operate a little fiber business… For my family and community, growing, processing and manufacturing clothing – mostly socks for the family and general public, and baby things for all the new additions my family is experiencing.
And I am like Claire in Outlander, living in a different time, but not needing to fall through stones to do it. And I get to learn and experience a little taste of what so many women before me had done… Keeping their families warm with their skill and their ingenuity and hard, yet satisfying work.
I am at a place where the farm kind of runs me. If I am not taking care of animals, working on products, getting ready for a festival….I am trying to earn extra money for the farm while working as a virtual corporate travel agent…while sitting in my farm house. Yes, I have found the perfect job for a farmer…an off the farm job, but I do not have to leave it to do the work. Technology allows me to talk to my clients from virtually all over the world and I still have view of my sheep while doing it. For instance, I spoke with a gentleman in China, coming to Newark from Shanghai. The company I work for books travel for many corporations and businesses. They route calls to me via the computer and I use the company’s software to access the traveler’s profile and book flights, cars, hotels and such. But also we use an airline system to go into a reservation and perform exchanges as well. It helped that I learned the formats and codes needed to work in that system while a travel agent for American Express some 20 years ago. Anyway..still there was a learning curve and now that I have been with the company a year..feel I have good grasp of the job now.
As you can see, life is busy. My focus of late has shifted a bit regarding my processing. I love the results I have been getting from the mill…but creativity in creating roving and yarn is limited…and the cost of any mill processing is not in line with a farmer trying then to sell the yarn produced. The numbers simply do not work. The only entity making any money is the mill…because once a farmer works in the cost of that processing as well as growing the wool itself, he or she would have to price yarn and roving far above what the market could bare to make any money. One day perhaps, mills will realize this…but now..for me…I am processing the fleeces myself, the ones that spinners have not purchased. And to be honest, while it is slow work, I love it..and have been able to experiment with blends and dyeing in the fleece. And what I am able to produce is one of a kind artisan type work. I have blended batts with silk and angora and mohair…and some lovely hand spun yarn.
Oh…big news..a new acquisition…are you ready? Ok then…it is an antique sock machine. I have been seeking and studying and researching like crazy for three years…and finally was able to get one. They are pricey…but managed to sock away (haha…you see what I did there?) a bit of money. So now I just received it from Quebec. And the sock machine and I are bonding. I have learned to do cuffs and am now working on heels. I hope to get good and produce Sweet Tree Hill Farm socks in the near future
Some other news…I follow Shetland News…and Shetland Wool Week will be in September…some day I will attend…another thing I am saving for. In the mean time, I share with you the information and perhaps you can go in my place. There will be lots of neat classes and a tour of the islands….oh I so want to go…sigh.
Ever wish you can have a life “refresh” button? I am creating one for myself as I refocus on what is important to me, resetting what my priorities are and putting aside things that aren’t…listening to that inner compass we are all born with.
A little bit about what has been going on….after 10 years of working on a wholesale line of hand dyed yarns and patterns…of trying to compete and market…attending the trade shows, as I went more and more into debt playing by the rules of the commercial yarn industry…I finally had to cry UNCLE! And in the meantime, I start my farm…my heart, my dream…and finding some success as I grow that business. Fiber is in my soul…but the debt needed to be dealt with and I needed a reliable way to pay my bills. Like countless others in this lousy economy, I was trying to find a job, an off the farm job that could help me get out of the hole that was growing deeper. Last Fall, I finely got signed onto substitute teach at the local county schools. But sometimes a week or 2 would go by without any calls to teach. So as the lean holiday passed, and countless applications, praying and job search engines…Aflac expressed an interest in me. I researched and found mixed reviews, but a bird in the hand and all that lead me to make the decision to try. So I went through the interview process and was hired as an independent agent. I just needed to get my license…no small task as I had no experience in insurance. I was desperate and so put in tons of time…learning, cold calling, lots and lots of driving. I had to get some professional clothes, hair and so on. And through all this, with some help from family and a great friend, kept my farm going. But not very well. I lost animals, my Etsy site suffered and I was going backwards in the farm business. And I was not making much money in Aflac. Worse yet, some of the people at the regional office were less than honest, and just folks I did not want to spend my time with. There were bright spots in that my immediate supervisor is turning out to be a nice new friend. And the BIG lesson…gave me a perspective as to what is important to me as I approach old age.
Now…job search still continued and I found and applied for a work from home operation called Working Solutions. And I think that is what it is turning out to be. To hedge my bets, I applied and was accepted in their training program as a travel consultant. In a prior life, I was a corporate travel agent for American Express and this experience worked for me in landing this opportunity…that and my computer experience. So I started the 4 week 4 hour each night of training. But Working Solutions paid me for this training. They offered lots of support and after 3 weeks now on the phone working as a virtual call center agent, in a schedule of my choosing, without any makeup or new clothes required. No commute, except to my new PC (as the software did not work on my mac.) After that 2 year search…finally a job I can live with and work the farm too.
So I find myself, after a much needed break, resetting on the life of my choosing. I even took some wonderful yoga classes while at the beach to revisit the thing that will help with the balance I crave. I am now on the path to get the farm production in high gear as I approach two fall festivals. I am tying up some loose ends with Aflac, revamping my yoga practice, and working hard at excelling as travel agent. Lots of work ahead, but not out of desperation, but out of purpose.
I invite any of you to share your challenges in following the fiber path while making the personal economics work. I think we all can benefit from the mutual support and hints and lessons learned.
I chose a career change to shepherd in my middle age, and I really haven’t addressed those unique physical challenges. I actually enjoy the physical part of the job and take pride of the fact I can hoist 50 pound feed sacks and hay bales. I took a sheep shearing class and can shear my sheep the traditional New Zealand way and did so until a couple of years ago when my numbers increased to require a professional. But I can shear when the need arises such as illness or before a sale. And I can woman handle a ram or large buck (in the case of goats,) and I can work a day long sheep catching day when we load up the barn with sheep before the shearer arrives. So as we were visited by record cold temps that simply would not leave for about a couple of weeks, I began to feel my age down to my bones.
The super cold air meant one small word, but huge problem: ICE!
We had to come up with a strategy to first keep the water flowing and then deal with keeping the water liquid for the rabbits, sheep, goats and chickens and our few ducks. This added to our…ok my chores and for the length of time I needed to be outside. On some days, the temps did not get out of the teens, some days lower. I would be outside for about 2-3 hours. I pulled into service old coffee cans for the rabbits as their steel tipped waterers froze immediacy and would not work, period. The two sets of coffee cans were changed out daily as one set could be melting while indoors.
Chickens water had to be replace two to three times daily
and the sheep and goats water had to have ice cracked to expose the liquid underneath. But it was cold for so long, solid blocks result and water had to be replaced via buckets as hoses were useless.
The ducks were my comic relief as I would create a puddle under the water hydrant and the ducks bathed, drank and played as their pond froze over. Not only did their pond freeze, but the big farm pond froze too resulting in the wild geese standing on it rather than swimming in it.
Each day, I dressed head to foot in fleece and wool and headed out to solve the days problems. Each day I felt more tired and my joints ached. Some days I just could not get warm and would soak in a hot tub to try and bring my body back to normal. My idle thoughts were wandering to doubts about my career decision. I mean, this is my passion, and I love creating products out of this wonderful wool and I love my relationship with the animals. I did come to one conclusion, I could not have made it through these days without my wool socks. My feet were always warm. And I resolved to soldier on to produce such a useful, natural and beautiful fiber that has not failed us for thousands of years. No synthetic has ever been created that surpasses wool for qualities of warmth, renewability, strength, breathability and so many more. I just need to step up my conditioning to deal with this “global warming thang” and I intend to.
And news alert….on the front burner is a mission to produce a strong stretchy sock yarn using the Shetland Wool. And even Sweet Tree Hill Farm signature socks. So more on this later. Stay tuned!
I sit here contemplating this new year and I am looking at my schedule of events, to do’s and so on. I am scheduled to pick up Roz this Saturday. She is our new Anatolian guardian dog for the flock and farm in general. She is a well seasoned five year old and my hope is that she will be ready to provide a much needed service.
Many of you might know that for the last two and a half years, I had been training another Anatolian from a puppy, Nisa. She and I built a solid working relationship, but also a friendship. Nisa loved walking the pastures with me, prancing back to me for a quick lean into my leg and my pats on the head. I treasured these moments with her. And she loved playing fetch and rolling on her back for tummy rubs.
As time went on, however, we found she was too obsessive in her thinking. She would clean lambs to the point of injury. And she would want to control the movements of the flock, regardless of countless corrections I would do. Finally I realized, it was not working out. A sad fact that became very apparent when my husband found her with a ram lamb and one of his horns was chewed off. Sycamore survived, but I had to face that Nisa could not be trusted with the flock. I had to make a tough phone call to the breeder to discuss the situation. Harriet was both counselor and responsible breeder. She was concerned for my flock, the dog and me as I held back tears describing what was going on. I was feeling that somehow I had gone wrong in the training and failed Nisa, not providing her the tools to perform her job. Harriet assured me that was not the case. There was something off with how Nisa’s brain was working. She was somewhat obsessive compulsive. This would be tough to train out of her. And based on how responsive she was with people, a better fit for her might be as a pet instead of a worker.
I did consider keeping her as a pet. That would be the emotional decision, not a business one. I had invested quite a bit of time and money into a guardian and the farm was in desperate need of a guardian. I was speaking to the pig farmer next door and he was telling me of all the coyote sightings recently in our area. And he has suffered piglet losses himself. Any one who has a flock must take seriously the predator threats and partnering with a guardian dog is how I am combating this threat to my investment in my flock, rabbits and chickens. So, Harriet came up with a solution. She took back Nisa a few weeks ago. Driving to Charles City with Nisa’ s head resting on my shoulder was difficult as I blinked away tears so I could focus on the road. She is now being worked with so she can be placed as a pet with a carefully chosen family. And we are getting Roz. She has worked with lambs, chickens and was looking for a guardian gig. The fact she is available is a true blessing. Another blessing is a breeder who takes care of her dogs, even after they are sold.
So Saturday, we meet the newest staff member of Sweet Tree Hill Farm. And I have high hopes she will be a match for our farm. And protect my livestock like a pro. I am in awe of working dogs and I look forward to my new partner.
One of the challenges these days in being a shepherd and creating a business out of a fiber farm is the necessity of using technology in marketing, bookkeeping, bill paying, and networking. Yesterday, I faced the very real cost of data usage and staying connected out here in the sticks, as my kids call it. We have no cable connection, no fiber optics, or anything like that. I have used a little 3G mifi hotspot for my computer and tablet for five years. And my kids have done their YouTube viewing and played their Wii games because the mifi can provide internet service to up to five devices. The beauty of this set up was that it was for unlimited data. And now I am finding the companies are regretting offering this service and are trying to rein it in. The world of technology is changing as data is getting more and more expensive. Even a shepherd needs to be mindful of data usage.
You see, my little mifi was getting painfully slow. I thought my device was failing. I called tech support, but they could not help me, sent me to a repair/retail center. I knew what this meant, they wanted me to get a new device, hence a new a plan….a plan that would require me to pay for data. Yikes!!! As I looked up our last month of data usage and we sucked up 19 gigs! Well, fortunately I found out that it was the battery. I could not get a battery at the retail center anymore however. I went to a cool store called Battery and Bulbs. They stock all these obscure batteries and lightbulbs and bingo! They had my battery. I can still keep my plan of unlimited data for only $60 per month a bit longer!! I learned one more thing. Sprint and Verizon and other companies are throttling the data hogs such as my household. They were slowing our data usage on purpose. That also accounted for the slow downs. So a little talk was necessary with my teenagers in their data usage.
This lesson in technology and how much we use it, even on a farm, brings to mind how thankful I am that I am in a line of work that is not virtual. I still feel the cold and the heat of the world. My hands get dirty, I get hay down my bra when I feed my sheep and goats. I smell the earth as the ground warms in the Spring.
I can walk a pasture and know that no one can collect the data of my foot prints. I build relationships with my animals that does not involve office politics. I get to work with real wool, smell the lanolin, wash it, comb it, spin it, knit and weave it. All real tasks that connects me to the planet and to being human on it. Computers have become a necessity of doing business, even a fiber business. But it does not have to encapsulate us from the real world. I love tech, I am good at it. But I would not feel real if I allowed it to swallow me. I need to use it to market the very real world of fiber and bring it to people so they too can smell the lanolin, the wool, the earth.
During the colder days, the weather forces one to head indoors and drink warm drinks and take a measure of the work accomplished this year. We are nearing the end of our first official year as a real wool farm. Our first fiber festival was in April. Our flock had grown enough wool to produce a bit if yarn, roving, both natural and dyed. I discovered felt. Mary at the mill suggested we make felt sheets with leftover wool and I began making hats, purses, jewelry that inspired me to break out my embroidery thread and discover silk ribbon which I also dyed. And poof! Value added products from our Shetland Wool.
And the sheep. I have learned so much from them. I am working with our pastures and have been studying up on nutrition and last Spring my seven ewes blessed me with fifteen lambs! And due some logistics issues, one more ewe gave me one more lamb in August. I have learned that there is a vulnerability during weening and I need to make sure every lamb gets additional supplements. These lessons were learned the hard way as I lost a lamb while I was out of town. I learned I need to supplement my rams just a bit more as they are a bit lean.
We had more festivals in the fall, but found out I could not get into the Fall Fiber Festival at Montpelier. So in less than a week after the festival, I sent my application in for 2014. Hell or high water, I will be at that festival!!! And I learned to stick to fiber festivals, leaving the gift type festival for others after the fiasco at the Appalachian Harvest Festival.
But the realization that I was doing at least a little bit right was after the shearing. My ewes were in good condition. They and the rams had produced the best batch of clean, lustrous fleeces I have ever seen. Twenty seven of them. I can’t bring myself to put them away as I process them. I want to look at them. I want to smell them. I want their sheared ends to tickle my palm as I walk by. Deciding to take the chance to let wool get into my blood has lead me here. Knitting was not enough. Spinning was not enough. Something inside has allowed God to lead me on this crazy journey of raising fiber animals, to this broken down 100 year old diamond in the rough farm in these gorgeous Virginia hills. To try and make a business out of this love affair with wool. I do struggle with how scary the financial part is as I am lousy with money, and I don’t know how I can make all my bills. Lots of juggling and lots of sleepless nights and lots of praying, but God somehow gives me a sale, or an opportunity and an idea or an angel that lends a hand and I am still here.
What sees me through is the work. I love feeding and visiting with the animals. I love even cleaning stalls, hutches, repairing a fence, a barn. Moving animals keeps me in shape. And I love the tedious job of grading the fleeces as I get to touch the wool. I can’t get enough of being outside, even in the cold. I can’t imagine doing anything else. If I won the lottery, I would be here. Perhaps I would have a new roof and siding on the house or a new barn, more fencing, but I would be here. Dreams get you moving, dreams take you on a journey. The trip can be and often is filled with heartbreak, filled with challenges that force you to rise and better yourself to meet those challenges. It is often humbling when God loves your dream enough to send you the help, the angels, the skills that you had inside that you never knew about.
So as Thanksgiving approaches, I take stock of my blessings. And I give thanks to God for giving me the courage to take this dream journey and for accompanying me as my partner. Non of my family shares in my passion, yet they are with me too. I hope my example provides the blueprint for my kids to follow their dreams. When I started, I had no idea of what I would experience. But each lesson, each challenge is a blessing. But the rewards are priceless.
My plan for the new year is to bring other fiber farmers together so we can help each other deal with our challenges and inspire and work together to ensure our success. More to come on that later.
The end of August, beginning of September is a time of readying for Fall Festivals and cold temps. The season has shifted. Summer birds like the Phoebe and the Swallows have left the pond and pastures. No longer do the Barn Swallows swoop over my head in defense of their youngsters. I am beginning to see Monarchs along with the Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies as they gather nectar for their long trip to South America. The bullfrogs are not as vocal along the pond’ s edge. And this year, cooler evenings have come early. So my activities now reflect the season’s transition.
Tomorrow, I will be gathering our five ram lambs into the barn paddock. They are weaned now. I will evaluate whether I will wether. It only makes sense to keep boys in tact if they have some great genetics to share. I know one or two definitely have good sire potential, namely Quince and Lokie. Quince has an excellent head and he is a very light fawn. The best attribute is that he has a very kindly fleece. Tiny crimp with a low micron count. Lokie has strong black genes, sweet temperament and lofty fine fleece. He also has a sturdy body type. These are some of the things I look for. Color and quality of fleece, nice face with good horns, strong large body. They will be in the paddock until our back field fence is completed.
Other decisions to made; which ewes to which rams. I know I will be using Hickory for his moorit fleece. And maybe Pecan for his outstanding body, head and horns. He is a light fawn. I want to choose about five ewes this year.
A project my friend Hannah and I are working on, building additions to five of the bunny hutches so they have interior space for the winter. We have three built. Hannah has great carpentry skills and I am painting and helping with the planning. I am painting them to match the color of my studio barn, only because I have so much of the paint left over. Painting will help them last longer. Moisture from weather and bunny can cause wood to rot. In the past I would place wood panels around the hutches during the colder days. Now all the bunnies will have a place to go to get out of the cold.
There are many fall and craft festivals taking place relatively close by. I have chosen two, the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival at the end of this month, and the Appalachian Harvest Festival at Mountain Lake Lodge, (used to be Smith Mountain Lake where Dirty Dancing was filmed.) I tried to get into the Fall Fiber Festival in Orange, but they have limited space available. Glad their rules are changing for next year so everyone will have a fair shot. Anyway…I am spinning, dyeing, embroidering, sewing, skeining, to get items ready.
Mary at Central Virginia Fiber Mill will have more Hilltop Shetland Yarn ready, including a new sock yarn. And I will have little angora yarn kits ready. A new one will be the French Parasol fingerless glove with beads. I have just finished the new pattern. And of course lots of dyed roving and I just got in a huge lot of Landscapes Dye that I will be bringing to the Shenandoah.
So much happening at Sweet Tree Hill as we look towards Fall. I love Fall. Snuggle weather is on the horizon.
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.
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.
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.
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.