Category Archives: Uncategorized

Too busy to die

I have been seeing a repetitive post on Facebook that you click on to see when you will retire.  It struck me that the notion of retirement means that one wants to stop what they are doing at some point.  So maybe if I am doing what I love,  retirement is either not necessary,  or I am retired.  And if I am retired,  then there is a lot of stuff to do to keep me busy… Not the idea most would have about retirement.  But that is farming. 

In days when this country was more agrural, the notion of retirement did not exist.  It was not until after World War II that the term come into the mainstream, and something we all aspired to.  Probably not a coincidence that office work was on the rise.  I was one of those folks with an office job in a high rise building.. In a cubicle… And I felt my soul utterly dying a slow death every day.  I kept myself motivated by saving my money and reading about farming and business ideas. The thought of spending the majority of my working life, and in essence my life,  in an office working for someone else dictating my schedule,  just a waste of a life, or at least not conducive to a meaningful life.  

It is hard to describe my journey to where I am now,  and too tedious to go into at length.  The essence of it is that I did trust the journey and trusted my guides.  And each stage was a learning platform,  even that dull office job at a trucking company.  So here I have landed,  a shepherd and a yarn producer… And yes, a travel agent for large corporations I can do from my home,  that provides me the needed steady income. But it is the farm that provides the most challenge,  the most energy,  the most problem solving skills,  the most time. Some days after inoculating and hoof trimming or working on the garden,  or shoveling rabbit manure into the compost pile,  or fence mending, or assisting in shearing and wool sorting…. covered in grime and sweat…that I ask myself… Is this what I wanted? 

I compare how I feel after those tough farm days to taking 80 customer service calls in canned air sitting in a chair in front of a computer screen all day and my answer is,  hell yeah!!!  I am in control of my days,  I keep my body moving in the outdoors in all kinds of weather,  I feel alive,  not slowly dying.  And the rewards of building something,  a farm and a business is invigorating.  And it is scary…and there are problems to solve… And there are sad days… Yet always lessons to be learned in those tough days to store in my arsenal of farm knowledge.  But I keep coming back to the notion about feeling alive. 

Now the tasks do mount,  and I am in the throws of learning I can’t do it all.  It does take a tole on my body,  and mental state.  So during this last year,  I am delegating and paying some folks to get some problems and chores done, as dealing with a 100 year old farm house also has its challenges.  I am putting my college student son to work on the gardens,  I hired some really good guys to fence in my back pasture,  and I now have a great house keeping company coming out once a month (woo-hoo!) and those living in my household contribute to paying for the house upkeep.  

This allows me to work on the farm business,  developing a stellar American Shetland yarn (Hilltop Shetland) that I can produce consistently and reliably and work on marketing it.  And producing,  on a small scale,  an end product for that yarn,  our 1910 socks.

 And… As a knitter and spinner,  I have too may works in progress waiting for me to tackle… Hoping for more time for these,  otherwise I would need to put these in my will.

It has been a long journey,  and I have a ways to go still… so retire? Why? 

I never aspired to stop something,  I aspire to do, to create,  to grow… And in essence… to live.  My grandpa lead busy career in the steel industry.  He worked very hard up in Pennsylvania and finally retired to Jeckyl Island Georgia for a life of golf and beach combing. I think he lasted a year, maybe two.  Not sure if retirement killed him,  he was a smoker… But not sure if he thrived.  He was a doer by nature,  and in fact was always looking to do,  to feel productive. I share that compulsion. 

So,  as I look at my farm to do list,  and decide what I will tackle on the day God calls the day of rest,  I figure that I don’t have time to die… Too much to do.. to much smelling fresh air while I do it,  too much hearing birdsong and frog croaking,  to much feeding and tending to my fiber animals. And at the end of the day, might take a dip into my God tended swimming hole,  that spring fed pond at the bottom of my hill,  that adds to my view in my workplace.  I will float to the middle and take stock of my blessings in this world. My thought will be that heaven has a lot to measure up to, as there is nothing like having an 8 acre pond to yourself except for the fish,  frogs, turtles, and geese.. And yes,  an annoying beaver.  Too much to do,  and yes also enjoy to leave the planet anytime soon.  So I guess I am foregoing the notion of retirement..what is there to retire from?  

Shop the latest from SweetTreeHillFarm on Etsy. Natural colored Fingering Weight Shetland in 400 years skeins.  

Five Natural Colors of Shetland Wool available in 400 yard skeins of fingering weight Hilltop Shetland. Perfect for Fair Isle, Lace Shawls & sock knitting. Knits beautifully on our antique circular sock machine. See 1910 shepherd socks in the store.

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.

My view of this great country,  seen from the vantage point of my little farm in the hills of Central Virginia…where Thomas Jefferson once traveled to visit family that lived nearby.  Where a few stones throws away in the Cumberland Courthouse came the first official call for freedom,  for the forming of the world’s first free self ruled nation…drafted and sent to the Virginia House of Burgesses.   (There is a marker for anyone driving through Cumberland Courthouse and we in the county celebrate it every year calling it Patriot’s Day.)  

From this vantage point,  I witnessed the discourse of this election.  It was heated,  it was robust but I will say…not unlike many elections.  It did not surprise me how nasty and emotional and robust it got. It is just we have short memories as a nation.  There have always been lies told, a biased media in the tank for one candidate or another.  Heck,  during the election between Adams and Jefferson,  one paper claimed one should not vote for the other because he is dead. In this election it was all about the labels.  It was about one party striving to define a voter by putting them in a box, labeling them  and then predicting how they will vote.  It was about another party loosing touch with that voter and hence tried to predermine who they thought would appeal to an electorate they did not know and could not define,  so bought into the labels the other side was using.  

 This election back fired on both parties, simply because both parties forgot something.  People don’t fit neatly into any box,  they are not their labels.  The media was biased,  but not in the way you might think.  Their bias was in how they perceived their audience.  They bought into and decided to orchestrate this labeling business. And in doing so,  thought they could sway an election.  You see,  they began to believe their own hype, their own spin.  They stopped listening to who they were talking to.  Instead, they began talking at,  talking past, dictating to,  lying to… a people that did not exist. 

You see the media and both parties thought they knew what motivated folks,  if they could define them.  They thought poor rural folks who were not college graduates would vote one way.  They thought college educated women would vote one way.  They thought urban blacks would vote one way.  They thought LGBT folks would vote one way.  They thought all Hispanics would vote one way.  They thought the military would vote one way.  They thought Catholics,  Jews,  Pagans,  and so on would vote one way.  

And then there was the name calling.  If you are for the second amendment,  you are a dumb hick and hold your bible too tightly.  If you are for gun control,  you are anti American.  If you are for a strong border you are a biggot.  If you are an uneducated white man and for one candidate,  you are a sexist. If you are a white woman and for another candidate you are a feminazi.  And one candidate in particular thought those voting for her opponent were in a basket of deplorables and labeled them xenophobic,  homophobic and so on.  And the media ramped up the name calling and labeling to a fever pitch. 

And the people often sited talking points the media put out there, labeling their friends and family in much of the discourse on Twitter, Facebook and such.  Even in my own family….when we were NOT face to face,  but behind the veil of Facebook, might dabble in the labeling. 

And where the label bias really affected the discourse was in the polling.  Oh my glorious God…the POLLING!  Have we ever seen so much polling?   There were the national polls, there were the state polls,  there were college polls, there were newspaper polls.  And as the election came closer,  these polls were put out daily. And yet… They got it wrong.  And not for the reasons you might think.  It was not the questions they were asking,  it was not the demographic of folks they were canvassing. It was their label bias.  They were not interpreting the data correctly because of the boxes they were putting people in.  But the funny thing is, is that people are not their labels. They do not fit neat and tidy into those boxes.  They do not vote according to how the media,  the parties, the pollsters thought they should vote.  

I am sure I am not alone when I say that we all know and have aquaintences that defy what we might have first thought of them.  I live in a very rural area that has a variety of folks. We have black, white,  Hispanic,  gay,  young families,  older retired (sort of.. many have farms so…they never retire)  and so on.  I know conservative gay people and young people that are liberal on social issues,  but conservative on fiscal issues.  I know women that are against abortion. I know some people who have never voted.  I know some people that will travel across the country for a political cause.  I know military folks that start out life voting liberal then change their thinking. 

So what does this all mean when it came to this crazy election?   The Democrat party had a candidate that whom they thought would win by a landslide because they thought she had broad appeal to who they thought were most people… people who thought like how most of the media thought because,  after all,  the media thought they labelled people correctly.  And the media,  most of them are college educated,  ride the train in first class,  many are married to people involved in government and they of course understood what drove people.  They knew what women wanted,  they knew what white college educated men wanted.  They knew what Hispanics wanted,  they knew what blacks wanted. And since they were the media,  they could convince others what they wanted,  or at least shame them into it.  Some of the media, ok,  let’s be honest,  most of it…was the Democrat Party Superpack.  They thought they had this in the bag,  because the polling said so,  right? 

Now shifting over to the Republican Party.  They believed this label stuff too.  Only because so many in the established leadership failed to leave the Washington Beltway and bothered to really get a feel for what the people were thinking. Or find out what has been happening in their lives. What was their job situation,  what are their fears for the future? What are they looking for in a candidate? They lost touch with the voter.  They had no idea it was not only going to be all about the issues,  but about personality.  Yes but not in the way you think.  Imagine the shock when the voters dismissed the Republican party’s chosen son,  Jeb Bush.  Why?  Wasn’t he accomplished,  believed in all the right things the typical conservative voters want?  He might have been right on some….some of the issues.  But wrong on personality. Imagine the shock when voters chose loud,  crude,  bombastic Donald Trump?  And dear readers,  the reason was… conservative,  bible holding evangelist,  gun loving, constitution purists… Wanted a BULLY! How about that label?  Yes.  They have been getting tired of being beaten up on by the label toting democrats and they were going to throw a label at them.  And have a champion willing to get dirt under his fingernails. And what farmer does not like that?  

Of course it got messy,  because now both sides were name calling.  And the names and labels were divisive, rude,  crude,  disgusting. It was a battle.  Many got hurt.  Families fought,  friends fought. The media had their spin machine in high gear.  And they did something amazing.  They stopped covering the candidates.  They did not do journalism.  Wikee Leaks filled on the vacuum and reported on the back room deals of the Democratic Party and their campaign. Media tried to cover this up,  but word did get out.  And the media totally ignored the last three weeks of the Republican campaign.  Because their candidate got razor sharp and bypassed the media and pulled an FDR.  Right, Trump’s version of Roosevelt’s whistle stop campaign.  Only he used the Trump jet. The schedule Trump maintained was dizzying. Sometimes he visited nine states in 72 hours.  He had rally after rally,  with tens of thousands of people attending… at a moment’s notice.  And guess what?  The name calling stopped,  well,  mostly.  It was all about the issues.  It was about issues actual people,  not labeled people,  not imagined people, not what the media or either party thought people should care about… But issues that real actual people cared about.  A strong military,  strong, safe border,  protecting the constitution,  getting rid of Obamacare that was bankrupting individuals and businesses alike,  bringing back the coal industry,  getting our respect back overseas,  renegotiating our trade deals to bring manufacturing back and manyany jobs back. 

In other words,  bringing back our greatness.  Since the mainstream media would not cover his words or his speeches,  Trump put his face in front as many Americans as possible.  In fairness, Fox Business did cover most all of his speeches.  

In the end, the media believed their own hype and labels,  the pollsters had eggs on their faces… and the American people did not vote their labels.  They voted… Imagine this…. They voted the issues.  Issues that were important to them based on their actual lives.  And as the results were coming in,  the media was dumbfounded.  They could not believe the candidate,  the one they attached every disgusting label they could think of…. sexist,  bully,  homophobic,  biggot,  xenophobic,  stupid,  deplorable, ….won.  Smarter folks than I will be studying this election. But in the end,  the people defied their labels. Neither the media or either party listened to the people,  they tried to define them instead.  

And this shepherd, from her little vantage point at the doorstep of where the idea of this country was first proclaimed watched,  like I watch my sheep, with caring and understanding. And yes,  I argued my views like many of you. Yet  I am so grateful I wake up on my farm in freedom. I do not care what labels we call each other,  because we all wear the best label,  American. 

Ollies Visit to Papa

I though my followers would enjoy this piece about the Shetland homeland….where our sheep came from.

Oliver recently spent the day clipping sheep on Papa, an island off the west side of Scalloway. Papa Isle is owned by the Smith family, the founders of Jamieson & Smith, he headed there with my…

Source: Ollies Visit to Papa

Book Review

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District

My review….

This book come to me at a time when my loneliness has set in and I question my calling as a shepherd.  I raise a small flock of Shetlands in Central Virginia.. on my own with little help.. and feel overwhelmed sometimes.  This book is a gift in that it brings to the forefront the tradition of shepherding in the Lake District of Northern England.  There is a rich tradition of shepherding that goes back centuries and those ancient traditions are practiced and revered today.  This book details this vibrant culture that has often been ignored by the tourists on holiday hiking in the
region,  having themselves been divorced from the land for generations.  The author sits you down in his living room and tells you the way of it.  That it is the culture,  working the land that shapes and becomes part of the landscape.. a sacred union that is so missed in most society.  I for one am drawn to the land and love feeling and experiencing the seasons as I work outdoors.   It is hard at times,  yet glorious at others.  I share this with the author.  I am not part of a traditional,  I seek to start it again.  This book shares the proof it still exists.. that man has not lost his way entirely. I have always taught my kids,  that your environment shapes you,  molds you,  is always part of your identity,  and this book sings to that notion.  I laughed,  cried,  nodded in the shared experiences and took note of the new things I learned.  This is a rich tapestry of images,  emotions and yearnings we all can identify with as each of us tries to make sense of why our souls chose to live life in human form on this earth.  It is full of wisdom…I was sad when I finished.    The narrator was superb. 

I listened to this book which I purchased from audible.  I did so while knitting socks from yarn gleaned from the backs of my sheep.  And while drum carding fluffy batts for the fiber festival coming up in Powhatan.  It linked my hands,  immersed in wool… To my head as images of the story came to life.  It was not really  a story,  but a memoir. And I felt honored to get to know this shepherd.  And I felt really ignorant, because I realized how little I know,  and frightened at the thought of it because I have so many lives in my hands. 

So I will get back to work… To the never ending chores,  with at least better perspective. 


James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life.

James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life

Sometimes I find it hard to put into words why I do what I do. For me is that I yearn to be around wool and sheep and somehow trying to put a business together to justify it. But when the day is finished, I am giving an evening meal to my sheep, after hours of working with their wool, readying batts and yarn for an upcoming festival…I stop, look around…and know I am doing what makes my heart sing.

Sheepy Hollow Farm

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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 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.

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