James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks on The Shepherd’s Life.

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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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Finding My Religion…

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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. 

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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.

Feeling My Age during Artic Blast

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!

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Ice was cracked with a broken hoe that could lift chunks of 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.

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Maizy bunny drinks from her coffee can.

Chickens water had to be replace two to three times daily

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Chickens eager for their fresh liquid water.

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.

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Sheep wake up to another frigid day.

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.

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Ducks take joy from a mud puddle before it froze too.

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Our frozen farm pond.

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!

Sheep to Vest

One of the challenges, or actually one of the fun parts, of developing yarn from our flock is coming up with ideas regarding how to use that yarn. Our yarn might be the most beautiful wool in the world (and many think it is), but it has to have a use. So as the we jump into the new year, I am working on some fun patterns for our Hilltop Shetland. Currently on my needles is the “Berry & Lace Vest”. After playing around with stitch swatches, testing out the possibilities, I finalized the rough draft of the pattern with gauge measurements from the swatches. And I casted on some of our Hilltop Shetland in natural white.

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Back of the vest, and my notes.

I have no secret process in writing patterns. Mostly I do the swatches to make sure the math works, then I dive in. As I knit, I often make corrections or add to the design as ideas occur. I like to write with the knitter in mind. Is the pattern fun to do? And will I be happy with the results? Will I or the recipient of the garment actually wear it? All these things are on my mind.

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Vest as the border is being knit.

So now I am on the home stretch of the pattern. I am knitting the border of the vest is a slipped moss stitch incorporating two colors of our hand dyed Hilltop Shetland. I can’t resist to add color to the textural interest of this vest. As I am finishing, I note that the berry and lace stitch was easy to memorize and fun to do. The slipped moss stitch is interesting in that it holds my attention as the colors and textures emerge. And I am always happy if I can avoid shaping and still have the garment look good. That remains to be seen and I bind off. So visit back to see the results!

Once the wool was on the back of a sheep, now on the back of a person. So cool!!!

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Paying Homage to the Guardian Dog

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.

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Nisa always ready for a pat.

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.

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Introducing Nisa to new lambs. She would make herself small and ease over to them.

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.

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Nisa is beautiful and I miss her immeasurably.

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.

Keeping it Real!

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.

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Three of my boys at a family dinner.

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.

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During one of my pasture walks.

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.

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Loving Lokie, one of my ram lambs.

A December Pasture Check

As we dive straight into December and busy ourselves getting ready for the coming holiday, it serves me well to take notice of my friends in the pasture. These days are short on sunshine, but when it is out, the animals are too; napping, exploring, nibbling or just hanging out. All seem content, and not the least bit stressed. I for one am looking at the time left and trying to figure how I am going to get all the knitting, embroidery and crafting done to complete the gifts I am planning to make. But these fuzzy critters are not frazzled.

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Hickory is enjoying his stay in the “honeymoon suite”. He is assigned to be dad of the spring lambs because of his soft moorit brown fleece and all around good looks and sweet personality. I would really like more brown lambs to have more brown yarn and roving on hand. He is enjoying the company of four ewes, Pansy, Dahlia, Gwyneth, and Motto.

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Estelle, Ettienne and Rupert heading out for a day of free ranging.

The duck trio are our newest residents. They were rescue ducks from Wildlife Rehabilitation. They usually rescue and doctor injured wild animals. But these three were domestic ducks that were neglected and one was attacked by a dog. All were in sad shape. But they were recovered and needed a forever home. We were chosen because of our ponds. But they actually prefer bathing and swimming in their tub. They take turns jumping in and splash around as only one can fit at one time. I have nicknamed them the bucket ducks. They have settled into their routine. They head back to the barn at night to be go to bed protected in one of the stalls. So they are there by dusk without me having to herd them back. And I am excited to report that Estelle is now laying eggs for the first time.

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Chickens are almost full grown!

The bantam chickens are just about full grown now. And I have to say, they are so delightful in how they all get along and play together. I wish I were so care free. I am eagerly waiting eggs, but in the meantime, I am enjoying their antics.

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Bluebelle and Lily eager for breakfast

The growing lambs are getting used to their new haircuts. We sheared a couple of weeks ago and I understand that lambs should go through a growth spurt after shearing. They look so sweet as they go about looking for food, take naps in the sun and even spar with each other. I am amused as I see baby ewes butt heads like rams. And they take their sparring seriously. Yet are friends after the battle.

So I am refreshed after visiting and feeding everyone this morning. Now back to speed knitting.

Have you followed a dream?

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Me on a cold day at the farm.

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.

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Hat made with Shetland felt in Natural Black.

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.

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Rams in the bachelor's quarters

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.

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One of the Shetland Fleeces on shearing day

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.

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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.

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Autumn view at Sweet Tree Hill Farm

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.

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