Category Archives: Going to Market

What products are being developed to support the farm. Animals gotta eat!

Festival Prep Mode

Though the current weather suggests we are in the throws of a deep winter, here on the farm…in between cracking ice and schlepping hay through the snow…are preparing for the coming Spring and that means getting ready for Powhatan´s Festival of Fiber.

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Sweet Tree Hill Farm festival booth

So what does that mean? We have taken washed and assorted Shetland Wool fiber to the mill for yarn, roving and felt. And we are hard at work felting dyed wool for purses, cuffs, hats and jewelry.

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One of our Shetland Felt Hats!

I am hitting the dye studio and dyeing silk noil and silk ribbon. The silk ribbon will be used to embroider our felt hats, jewelry and purses.

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Hand dyed silk ribbon

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Embroidered Felt Cuff featuring our dyed ribbon.

The silk noil is being hand carded with our naturally colored angora bunny fiber for spinners. Some of it will be handspun into yarn so that knitters have this unique yarn to create our Edwardian Stole pattern or projects of their own choosing. I don’t believe any farm is producing anything similar.

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Carding angora and dyed silk noil.

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Edwardian Stole - pattern available in our farm store.

This is a lot of work, but so much fun to do, and an outlet for that is creativity. I am a believer we all need that outlet to feel fulfilled as a human being…but that is just me.
As I look out my window at another four inches of snow and 25° temps, my mind has moved onto spring as I work with brightly colored silk and soft fuzzy angora. See you at the festival that will take place in Powhatan on the last Saturday in April. Google it for more info.

October, Month or Travel, Month of Shepherd School

The last six to eight weeks or so are a blur. For six weeks in a row, I had to travel to some where…I have been to just about every corner of Virginia; to Berryville for the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, to Orange for the Fall Fiber Festival, to Blacksburg for the Appalachian Harvest Festival and to Harrisonburg to get a lesson on a cranking sock machine that I am in the process of purchasing. And the last to Charles City for a sad errand.

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Sweet Tree Hill Farm's booth at SVFF

In building this farm business, I go because of the wool, the wool drives me. I go to process the wool, go to sell the wool, go to learn about creating products with the wool, go to solve a problem guarding the animals that grow the wool. Also go to enjoy the company of like minded people of wool.

The passion is there to do what it takes, it is just sometimes I
am not sure what it takes. In the end I need to make money in order to justify the animals, the fencing, all the hay and grain purchases. I love developing wool products, the challenge is that I need to develop a beautiful Shetland yarn and roving that inspires wool crafters. This is a trial and error process and involves working closely with a mill that shares your vision and will work as hard as you do. I have enjoyed working with Mary at Central Virginia Fiber Mill. We have started first with soft lofty worsted yarns, some heavy worsted. I have learned that Shetland is light and soft, yet expands. The garments are comfortable because the yarn is light weight, even the heavy worsted yarns. I am working on a vest soon to be made into a pattern. The yarn is lovely in its squishyness. My flock is growing many natural colors and coupled with the dyed colors, makes my imagination spin with the finished garment possibilities. So more patterns to come.

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Hilltop Shetland Worsted in Natural Black

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Hilltop Shetland Bulky in Natural White

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Hilltop Shetland Worsted in Autumn Walk

(And don’t forget the roving, we have tons in both natural and dyed ready to be spun up. I just love touching it. Would love for you to try and get your thoughts on it. )

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Shetland Roving in Purple Moutain

Next we will be focusing on a fingering to sport weight yarn. I am acquiring and learning to use a circular sock knitting machine and will soon be producing not only Shetland Sock yarn, but also producing socks to sell. In the end, this might be what I focus my production on because no one has a similar product and it is what sells that will dictate what type of yarn we produce.

Well back to all the events. We were vendors at two of the events mentioned and tried to get into the third, but the Fall Fiber Festival has limited space for new blood. However, I sent in my application less than a week after the 2013 event for 2014. Hopefully a space will open up, because I am only an hour away and it would be a shame I can’t vend in my own back yard. Anyway, we learned a few things. Angora yarn and products sell well. The yarn is all finely handspun, I have developed kits for small beaded projects and a nice stole pattern for an Angora blend yarn. Again, there are folks that sell the fiber, but few are producing a yarn.

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Fingerless Beaded glove kit

Regarding the Shetland, natural colors are selling a bit better than dyed. And I have had requests for yarn to use for fair isle.

So here I sit, contemplating and planning as to what to do with the next crop of 30 or so fleeces about to be shorn off next week. And along with that, how to pay for a barn full of winter hay and feed and the processing costs at the mill. A lot relies on whether I can learn enough from this last October to make financially sound decisions. I have much riding on this. Can I read the minds of would be customers? And I wonder how to spread the word that reaches these customers effectively. All these things describes the real risks involved in being a yarn farmer. My love of wool drives me to take these risks. I take responsibility for the outcome by learning learning learning….how to grow and grade wool, how to evaluate yarn, roving quality, honing my dye and spinning skills, how to raise quality sheep and rabbits….And how to market.

My request, visit the farm shop, look around, maybe give some roving or yarn a try. But most important of all, I invite your feedback, honest feedback. And then you arm me with additional information to improve what I will produce for you. So the most important partnership of all, is crafter with shepherd-farmer. Exchanging ideas will result in desirable, beautiful locally grown wool products for you and your family’s needs and pleasure.

Pasture Transitions

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.

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Pond' s edge.

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.

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Quince

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Lokie gets a scratch.

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.

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Bunny Hutch additions in progress.

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.

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Embroidered front of felt purse

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.

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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

Thoughts on the Fiber Path

All of us are on some path of some sort. Some are methodical about setting goals, resolutions and such, especially at this time of year. January is not only the first month of the year, but there is often not much happening. Nature has provided enough nasty weather to keep us inside and today is no exception as I am staring at a cool rainy grey day. So I thought I would do my bit and give some thoughts to tackle the notion as to plans, hopes and dreams I might have for the coming year…or should I say the year we already have dipped our toe into.

I am happy to be taking this time to evaluate the stage my farm is in and where I see it heading. Also my personal journey in the Fiber world I have created for myself. And maybe a dash of the spiritual too. Sweet Tree Hill Farm is starting to take shape. We have 14 registered Shetland Sheep, with 4 quality rams, 9 ewes-6 of which are being bred for late April babies.

One of our pastures has really good fencing in place. We (my husband and I) have plans to fence in another this spring. Right now, we have 3 of the rams along with 6 cashmere goats in temporary fencing the we move every couple of weeks or so. We have a functional barn with attached pole barn that is in need of repair. Not sure when that will take place. We also have a couple of small coops with some bantam chickens, enough to provide eggs for the family. And add 8 Angora rabbits, a farm/guardian dog along with a free roaming 17 year old goat and you get the gist of my set up along with my live stock.

My focus this year is to develop products. A farm….a real farm, needs to generate an income in order for it to be sustained. My hay bill during the winter months is $80 per month, feed bill is about $80 per month all year long, not to mention fencing, shearing, and so on and you get the picture. We have started by creating an Etsy Store and posting yarn and hand blended roving from the sheep and rabbits. We have added multicolored dyed roving from my wholesale business, Scarlet Fleece…some knitting kits with hand spun Angora. And more recently, I have utilized some felting skills I have picked up from classes and have created felted soaps and felted and embroidered jewelry, purses and ornaments.

Sales are slowly getting more regular. And this April, we are signed up for a Fiber Festival in Powhatan County. I have many fleeces at a local mill and by the festival, we will have yarn in several natural colors, roving and felt.

I am enjoying creating the products. I am trying to be true to myself and create some different things no one else is doing. The exploration is very gratifying. For instance, no one produces felted soap with Angora. It is more difficult to felt with Angora, but I have developed a process that works for me, and I add extras like blending in silk noil, or needle felting some rabbits or sheep onto the soap. I am most proud of my felted purses and jewelry. The first fiber skill I was taught was embroidery when I was six years old. It is fun to use that skill and create one of a kind products like the pendants, coin purses and cuffs. I use my hand dyed roving, along with different forms of silk to create the felt. So these products are not like anything else out there. It is fun developing the process for creating these items.

The other part of all of this is marketing. This is a challenge and one I need to look at this year. My goal is to develop a website along with the blog and Facebook page and continue to work the Etsy system…which isn’t bad once you dig into it. But I need to increase sales to actually make money.

Taking care of animals falls mostly to me, but a chore I love most of the time. Those exceptions might be during very inclement weather, like today. I like developing relationships with each animal. This is actually quite helpful when it comes to catching an escaped animal, or moving them to a different location. Not to mention working on them, like vaccinating, trimming hooves, working and shearing. It goes a long way if they are familiar with you. And mine are, I feel honored about it actually.

And feeding falls into the category of routine. I think there is balance and a feeling of calmness and security when you stick to a routine. When I feed each rabbit, I pet each one and talk to it. They often reach up to receive these little affections and it is good for them if we monitor them closely. If one is familiar with the behavior of your animals, you can catch things early. And it is a part of my day I look forward to…they are my coworkers and they keep me grounded.

Now don’t think all is a Beatrix Potter story, there is much hard work with deadlines. I have to meet the needs of my Farm but also the needs of my wholesale yarn dying business, needs of my family, like laundry, gardening, house cleaning and so on. So another aspect of my fiber path is balance. Last year, I lacked that balance. I felt like when I was working on the farm, I needed to be working on Scarlet Fleece.

And visa versa. Not to mention trying to do things with my family. I also was not taking care of myself, not exercising, or getting enough rest. So last week, I put together a weight lifting, aerobic, yoga routine and added meditation to check in with my spirit guides, along with a daily tarot card reading. This helps me to make decisions that I find difficult sometimes. It is also my idea of prayer. I also walk with my big guardian dog around the perimeter of the pasture and down to the lake to do a little meditation and she is also a good listener.

Finally there is my fiber exploration. I always like to learn about working with different fibers and work on personal projects. And as stated in prior postings, I am exploring the qualities of specific sheep, namely sheep with North European origin. So while working on a traditional Icelandic shawl, I am also spinning Gotland for a sweater and later I will be jumping into my own Shetland.

So this is my state of things now at my little corner of the world. I have much to work on and explore along the Fiber path this year. And maybe, I might find a better me along with a better farm and fiber business at the end of this year.

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