We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.
Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.
Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.
On February 20th, we’ll be headed down to the mill to pick up our first run of Bobolink yarns! It’s really hard to express how excited and delighted I am to have this project come to fruition. We will have about 250 skeins available wholesale to interested stores. Our Bobolink Yarns Launch Tour will include trunk shows at Notion Fabric and Craft as well as Norwich Knits. Interested in hosting a trunk show? Get in touch!
While we eagerly await our finished yarn, we are also about to begin shearing season! We are scheduled to attend four shearings in the next two weeks, with more to come later in the season.
We start with Scuttleship Farm, where the Romneys and Dorsets look better than ever after Sean and Annie changed their feeder technique to reduce hay damage in the wool. I have a special order for their Dorset, so we will be picking that up as well.
The next shearing is my own for my own yarns. We’ve really strived to reduce hay chaff in our wool as well, with mixed results. The ewes look great, but the ewe lambs who squeeze in to feed lower than the ewe lambs have massive wool damage. Next year, we’ll shear all of our lambs in fall and let them grow shorter, tidier wool for winter. The fall-shorn lambs in the barn now really benefitted from shearing- they are more active, less encumbered by fleece and easier for me to evaluate for fatness because they aren’t hiding under a mountain of fleece.
Next stop, Cate Hill. I can’t wait to see this year’s fleece. I have so many questions for Maria about the variety of wool types her East Friesians and crosses have. We have a lot to chat about generally, too. You would think that neighbors who are only 20 minutes away would see each other often, but we’re all so busy it’s almost impossible.
Snug Valley Farm is next on the journey. Ben and Kelly Notterman are cattle management and marketing experts whose sheep are thriving. They are frequent presenters and educators who teach other farmers how to optimize their grass management. I am grateful to be able to help them better utilize the wool from their flock, which just hasn’t been a priority when so many other enterprises on their farm need their time and attention.
It’s easy to feel like this is the best job in the world. Even in cold weather, with my fingertips nipped with cold, I love the tactile experience of touching the soft greasiness of raw fleece. I love the world of wool’s natural colors, even within a single fleece. I love photographing the process. I love how sheep respond to being relieved of 5 or 10 lbs of extra weight. They often skip away happily and then have to sniff all of their friends whom they don’t recognize without their heavy suits.
So wish me luck, and know that in three short weeks, we’ll have some amazing yarn to share with you!
Readers may recall our previous post about two older ewes we have and our concerns for their ability to bear their lambs in 2020.
Well, I am happy to report that most of the flock is doing really well. Ewes are gaining weight and gathering strength. Now is the point in gestation where the demands of the growing lambs are increasing, so we are increasing the amount and quality of feed. Soon, we’ll be offering some grain along with hay and haylage.
K and J, however, are doing a little less well. I noticed last week that K was losing a bit of weight and was clearly being outcompeted at the feeder by bigger, stronger ewes. J is still holding her own, but I know that as the other ewes grow stronger still, she could begin to lose out as well. So Matt and I decided to take action. We tidied up a disused portion of the ram barn and set out thick bedding. We ran a cord for a water de-icer and we picked up some of the best hay from the most popular bale in the barn. Then we ran out to the feed store. Here is where I need to thank horse-loving folks for prompting our feedstore to carry a plethora of tempting, palatable foods that horses and sheep alike would appreciate. We chose a bag of finely chopped alfalfa for our gals, knowing that a lack of teeth (J has two, K three) won’t prevent them from utilizing the nutrition.
At first, the ewes were naturally nervous due to their separation from the flock. Oliver the ram was concerned that we had taken some of his gals away. But as soon as each noticed the big bin of hay and the tasty treats on top, they soon forgot about anxiety and began to fill up. We are taking the feed-increase slowly so we don’t cause bloat or laminitis (which sheep can develop). Hopefully, we can reverse the decline in K’s condition and prevent J from following suit. When I checked them a few hours after moving to their new luxury suite, both were contentedly chewing cud with nice full bellies to show me.
2019 represented a turning point for our farm. With our yarn sales, we’ve reached a point of some sustainability. We are really grateful for everyone who has supported us in this by buying yarn, sharing a post or just by offering encouragement. If we are going to turn the climate crisis around, we need people like you who value local, sustainable and biodegradable clothing. On the meat side, progress hasn’t been quite as dramatic, though we’ve made some breakthrough connections that we hope to continue. We are focusing on lamb box delivery while we are also moving a lot of lamb through our partners at Pete’s Greens, City Market and the Craftsbury General Store.
So what will 2020 bring?
We are cautiously optimistic that we will have more of both our Derby Line Border Leicester Yarn and our Greensboro Bend BFL available in 2020. Avid readers of this blog will know that Bobolink Yarns launches in February. We are expecting our first Bobolink Yarns product back from the mill then. I have not let readers know that 300 additional pounds of wool went to the mill in December. We are partnering with Sheep to Shawl to offer our unique yarns in their 2020 yarn club. Donna tells me that her yarn fans love unique wools with stories to tell.
On the sheep side, we are keeping our flock size similar to this year. We’ve concluded that until the land fertility begins to improve significantly, we can’t really add much to the number of ewes we manage. We will keep 8 or so ewe lambs from this coming crop and we may have yearling ewes to sell to buyers. If you are looking for breedstock, this is a great year to look at our Border Leicesters in particular. I have two fantastic unrelated rams. Buyers could buy compatible ewes and rams from us. Get in touch if you are thinking about getting sheep in 2020.
We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year. The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting. The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.
Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn. The ewes are eager to see me. They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again. We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up. With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.
Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn. In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep. Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial. Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving. I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried. I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.
In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples. They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family. It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep. If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it. Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans. The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other. We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins. Frustrating.
With temperatures in the low single digits today, we are surely in the thick of winter. Last week, we finally received the replacement barn-ends that we ordered after the back of the barn tore in half during the Halloween storm. Unfortunately, Matt and I concluded that we won’t actually complete the repairs until spring. Neither of us want to battle stiff, uncooperative materials in terrible weather while the barn is filled with pregnant sheep.
Speaking of pregnant sheep, our vet Dr. Emily came out yesterday to ultrasound each of our ewes to check for pregnancy. The news was mostly good- lots of multiples, ewes look generally healthy, and we even have a few pregnant ewe lambs! We sent each ewe through the chute for a fairly low-stress exam. It was a perfect opportunity to check on some of the ewes who are skillful at avoiding us under most circumstances. I am so pleased with how chubby and healthy most of the flock is. I really feel like I have that aspect under control at the moment. I think the biggest factor is that Matt made all of our hay this year, and the ewes eat it with great gusto.
On the downside, we do have three open adult ewes. Ewe lambs get a pass on not breeding their first year, but 1616, Beth and Eilis all scanned empty, much to my disappointment. Sadly, we are reasonably sure that Eilis is dying, so we are preparing to euthanize her soon. Two vets, endless exams and many treatments have all yielded no improvement in her condition. Dr. Emily and her former owner agree that cancer is not unlikely. I am so, so heartbroken that after all of the TLC we provided to Eilis, we have no offspring from her or from her sister, Beth. Beth has been fat and healthy the whole time, but just won’t settle a pregnancy. We are blood-testing her for a final chance that maybe her pregnancy could have been missed, but I am not holding my breath.
I’ve been sharing a series of pictures of ewes in the flock to help show people the individuals in the web of stories in the flock. I am enjoying sharing these images – I want people to know how we see our ewes as singular beings with their own personalities.
We have two ewes who are a little extra-special, though.
Their names are K and J. They are twin sisters, 10 years old, and just as darling as they surely were as lambs. They are smaller in size than their herdmates. I am not sure why – they do fight for their fair share of food and they aren’t underweight. They’re just smaller of frame. Both are down a few teeth here and there – this will be an issue down the line.
J has a serious look. She’s all business and doesn’t really want to be friends. She trundles right into the middle of the largest Border ewes intent on her share of feed.
K has a gentler face. She is less competitive, more tired, with a broken ear that no longer shows the BFL perkiness it once did.
In 2020, I will need to make a tough decision. As K and J slow down, I need to consider their place here. Can I give them a safe and sequestered place if they become uncompetitive? Each only raised one lamb last year, leaving us to raise an orphan from each. My heart wants to keep them forever, but functionally, we can’t afford to. The other temptation is to give them to a pet home where they could live out their days. Sadly, I have too often seen other people with older animals who fail to recognize when it is time to let a sheep go. I sympathize – it’s hard to recognize a discrete point in a slow decline when it is time to let an animal go. But my responsibility is to the welfare of the sheep, fundamentally, and I must adhere to that. With luck, they’ll keep chugging along and I can keep them here a little longer.
Bobolink Yarns moved along towards realization today.
I had checked with my neighbor Maria Schumann about wool recently. Maria and her husband Josh Karp own Cate Hill Orchard. There, they raise sheep for meat and dairy, cultivate apples, and run a wide variety of small enterprises. I am continuously amazed by their ingenuity and creativity developing new products. Maria’s family founded Bread and Puppet Theater, a famous Vermont puppetry theater. To me, she’s local royalty.
As much as Maria loves beautiful fiber, the effort to mill and market their wool has gotten away from them. Two year’s worth of wool awaited me in Maria’s old, charming barn. Walking through the barn, I saw old mirrors, toys, spare wood, cob webs, and every other spare tidbit and old tool that old barns contain. Sometimes I wish our tube and canvas barn had some spare corners where old wonders might accumulate.
The wool is truly beautiful – clean and long-stapled. Since East Friesian dairy sheep are typically selected for their milking ability and not their fleece quality, the fleeces do vary between individuals more than you’ll find with other breeds. I don’t think that variety is going to hurt, though. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook suggests that variation in fibers ranges from 26 to 37 microns, meaning that the fiber can range from near-skin soft to outerwear-only. By comparison, my BFL sheep probably only range from 23-28 microns flockwide.
So now, we just need to decide exactly what to spin from it.
Images from my trip- these are Maria’s lovely sheep and her wool coming home, all piled up in the back of the truck. Looks like perhaps 150 lbs.
Burgess begins the book by outlining the environmental and ethical morass that is current Fast Fashion. She outlines all of the pain and environmental destruction inherent in petroleum-derived fashion, including pollution from manufacture, dyeing and weaving/sewing of clothes. She also notes emerging evidence showing the polluting properties of microfibers. She tackles the environmental and ethical concerns about conventional cotton production and sheep production, including non-point pollution of fresh water as well as land use concerns. I had not considered just how large the environmental footprint of clothing really is because I am not an active shopper, but she rightly points out that clothing manufacture is a huge sector of the global economy. No person or environment is untouched by the effects of our economic choices.
Her solution to the issues of our current wasteful and destructive clothing habit is simple enough to envision, but a challenge to implement. She believes, and I agree, that we should go “localvore” with clothing as we should with food. De-globalizing clothing economies and changing our habits around clothing would drastically slow the consumption of resources currently deployed to making flimsy garments meant only to last for a month or two. It would also provide revitalizing economic opportunity in rural areas.
Her critique of the increasing rate of “planned obsolescence” in clothing really hit home for me. I have struggled with this myself – I want to buy sturdy, comfortable jeans to work in, but in women’s clothing, jeans have become so flimsy that it’s hard to find a pair that will last me a year. Men’s clothing is a little sturdier, but it doesn’t fit me at all and I feel like I shouldn’t have to compromise on fit to get properly dressed. It’s even more of a struggle for me lately because since my surgeries, I can no longer tolerate a tight waistband across my tender pelvis and stomach. That rules out a lot of brands of work pants.
The segment of the book that spoke to me most was (of course!) the segment on the potential for a California wool renaissance that would create a market for local raw wool, mills to spin and weave or knit it, and manufacturers to create top-quality finished garments. I am totally on board with this vision. Frustratingly, the only way this would really work would be if the environmental costs of globalized manufacture weren’t hidden from consumers or charged to third-world countries for clean up of environmental damage. If the lifecycle price of carbon better matched the price at the pump, local clothing would be instantly competitive.
I am furthermore grateful for all of the groundbreaking lifecycle analysis that Burgess has done looking at local fiber’s carbon sequestration potential. We should all wear wool with pride, knowing that every stitch of wool that replaces something made of petrochemicals is a little gift to our climate. I only hope that we will rectify the artificial cheapness of imported fashion and imported food before it’s too late – I can safely assume that Burgess wishes very much for the same. We furthermore agree that lab meat and lab fibers are a false hope which only serve to further centralize production while still hiding their carbon and ethical costs.
My critique of the book is twofold. While the author’s citation of statistics and examples is commendable and thorough, so many are cited that it sometimes detracts from the narrative of the book. The many credits she gives to people she visited and talked to while exploring her fibershed causes a similar narrative issue. I appreciate that she wants to give producers their due, but I admit I found it distracting. Also distracting was the organization of the book, which I would describe as distinctly “Californian-informal”. Perhaps because I tend to favor textbooks, I struggled to follow the occasionally-meandering threads in this book. I also wish she had more thoroughly examined the impacts of natural dyes. It is my understanding that when mordant is added, many natural dyes are as polluting as synthetics or are worse.
Nevertheless, I feel that this is an important book for anyone who wants to explore the implications of their clothing choices. She has groundbreaking information about new techniques for growing clothing crops more sustainably and with fewer labor rights infractions. The book is full of striking illustrations and inspiring side-notations about farms and operations she has visited. I would recommend it as the fiber-world equivalent to Omnivore’s Dilemma and other groundbreaking works endeavoring to spark change in our systems.
Recently, yarn shops have been asking for more of our yarn to buy wholesale. We had inquiries at both Vermont Sheep and Wool and at Rhinebeck. Because our retail efforts are going well, we don’t have enough yarn for more extensive wholesale marketing than the two local yarn shops we currently work with. It’s hard to let purchasers down knowing that they need locally-grown stock to distinguish their shops in a crowded and competitive marketplace.
At the same time, other sheep farmers all around us have piles of wool going unused because they don’t have the knowledge, skill, or interest in doing so, not to mention the capital to have thousands of dollars in yarn sequestered at the mill for a while. So much wool going to compost or the base wholesale market that doesn’t even offer a dollar a pound.
The third problem is one that Matt and I have acknowledged for Fiscal Year 3 of our farm at this scale. Our enterprises make money, but it’s looking like they won’t supply enough profit to pay all of the bills without some additional enterprises. We have too much work on the farm to fit in off-farm jobs. How can we fill the gaps?
What if we could address all three issues with one effort? We could buy raw wool from other sustainable sheep enterprises for much more than the base-level wholesale price, get it spun into excellent yarn, and then offer it to local yarn shops to help them curate a fuller local fiber section. Since our yarn enterprise is generally doing very well, we can run this parallel enterprise similarly.
I have selected three farms to start with. All three have interesting breeds, amazing fleece and so much potential. All three are happy to see their fleece going into a worthy product. I also think that knitters, crocheters and other fibercrafters are ready to move on from superwash merino into other, more adventurous waters. Remember when sweaters didn’t pill? It was because they were made from medium wools which stand up much better to daily use. Not everyone will think this yarn is neck-soft – save your merino for that project and make your snowball-throwin’ mittens out of our yarn.
If you want to support this project, the most helpful thing you can do is purchase some yarn or lamb from the shop. I don’t want to take long-wait preorders (fiber takes MONTHS at the mill – really!) but I promise I will let you all know when the new yarn is available. In the meantime, your purchases will go towards purchases of wool, mill costs and other detail-stuff like yarn labels. Your support means a lot to me, and I hope you find this project as exciting as I do.
Meanwhile, I do have a sheep farm to run, so nothing will change on the Cloverworks end. A long winter followed by lambs awaits us!