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.
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.
I recently read a conversation on the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association listserv on the topic of calculating a profitable lamb production enterprise. Some producers hadn’t calculated their production costs, while others weren’t sure what market prices looked like.
For our lamb enterprise, I calculated our cost of production and then did a bit of research on comparable products. Comparable products are lamb produced by other enterprise farms (farms where vegetable and animal enterprises make money, whether or not the farmer farms full-time or not). Local lamb in grocery stores counts, but not imported lamb. A quick google effort is all that is needed to see what other farmers are charging. I then deducted my cost of raising lamb from the prevailing price, and calculated how many lambs I would need to raise to make the amount of money I would like to from my lamb efforts. Lamb needs to pay about 2/3 of my annual income.
Predictably, I would need to charge much more for my lamb than the market would support to make something close to the median US income, but farm life has other benefits. We breathe fresh air, eat local food, do enough work to avoid needing a gym membership, and we get to spend our time together. It all comes down to what kind of lifestyle is enough.
I have a spreadsheet to share with any sheep raiser who needs a little help calculating the cost of raising their lamb. This calculator is only as good as the accuracy of the numbers you have, so be honest with yourself about how much the lambs cost to keep. If you are trying to calculate what it would cost to start a sheep operation, there are lots of resources online to help you estimate how much hay your sheep will eat and how much fencing might cost.
Please feel free to customize your copy with additional info pertinent to your farm and to share this resource. I love writing a good spreadsheet, so this is my gift to you. If the sheet that downloads has format problems for you, I am happy to send you a copy of the form in Google Drive – just get in touch with the form below:
If you’ve ever ridden in the car with me, you probably know that I’m a bit of a public radio buff. I am a huge fan of VPR, and particularly of Brave Little State, which is a podcast about questions about quirky Vermont topics. Recently, a question I asked was featured on the program!
Matt and I spent a lot of time driving all around the northeastern part of Vermont on our search for a suitable farm to buy. We noticed Star Pudding Farm Road in Marshfield more than once, so I wanted to ask about it. Turns out that the answer brought a tear to my eye because sometimes it feels like my farming efforts are rewarded with dining on wind pudding.
Our other major media effort is a new children’s book about lambs growing up on our farm. April and May: Two Lambs at Cloverworks Farm tells the charming story of two lamb sisters who explore their surroundings, with educational commentary for adults to enjoy. The book is appropriate for pre-readers and early readers. Buy a copy through the link above, or come see us at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market on Saturdays!
In other farm news, Mary Lake came to shear the lambs who aren’t slated for retention yesterday. We got over 50 pounds of top quality fiber, so I am debating whether to have roving made or whether to hold out for more yarn….what do you think?
In past years, our BFL clip has been too small for me to send it to a mill. Bluefaced Leicesters are bred to have light fleeces. In the UK, this was done with the idea of reducing the fleecy bulk of Cheviots and Scottish Blackface ewes. The ewes from these crossbreedings are known as mules, and they are famous for having better wool and more lambs than their mountain dams, but more fleece and ruggedness than their BFL sires.
In the US, where BFLs are not used as much for creating mule ewes, the small fiber clip is a bit of an issue for mill processing, which requires minimum amounts. This year, with 17 adult ewes contributing, we finally have plenty of lovely yarn to sell.
The yarn itself is something else. I have never had yarn so smooth, shimmery and soft, while not being ropey or hard at all. I love how it shows off the dye efforts I’ve made. It’s easy to envision this yarn as a luxury shawl or treasured scarf. Slouchy hats would also be a great use for it. I’m not saying that your BFL socks won’t stay up, but I am saying that this yarn deserves to be used doing what it does best, which is draping beautifully without pilling. I chose colors that I thought would lend life and interest to single-color projects, though the colors complement each other well, too.
Most years, I have sent my wool to the mill with the expectation that my yarn might come back just a few weeks before the festivals I regularly attend. Usually, that was just enough time to count it and dye it while Mom might knit a sample or two.
This year is different. Our mill, Battenkill Fiber, has a different reservation system that allows me to place my wool earlier in the queue by making an earlier deposit. This saves me a lot of stress and hassle in the fall; a time of year when I am busy with lambs and farmer’s markets as well as yarn.
Our yarn came out wonderfully, once again. The Border Leicester wool we sent in became our Derby Line Sport-Weight yarn. We also sent our BFL to the mill and got back stunning, drapey, glossy fingering-weight yarn. It’s all dyed up, but I haven’t gotten it into the online store yet. Ditto for some hat kits we will be offering- there’s lots to look forward to!
As you read about in The Reality of Yarn, getting the yarn off of the cones and into skeins took a lot of time and patience. Choosing colors and dyeing the yarn relies a bit more on some of my experience. I took careful note of which colors appealed to people and which ones just sat. I really like orange, but I’ve eased-up on orange a bit this year in the Derby Line. I have also made more solid shades and fewer semi-solid. I did choose to make semi-solids and multicolor yarn with the BFL. It was BORN to be an art-shawl, cowl or scarf, so having an art yarn is more appropriate. Overall, I am pleased with the palette I’ve made and eager to see how customers receive it!
I admit that I am a bit selfish about dyeing the yarn. Even though it would be a potentially fun group activity, I hoard it for myself. Dyeing is the one place where I can do a bit of artwork in a profession that is otherwise mostly physical, so I make an afternoon of it with the radio on, a glass of wine, and a drawerful of powerful dyes and my dedicated pots. I hope that my creative outlet will be your crafting inspiration!
Don’t get me wrong. Playing with yarn gives me great joy. I love the texture, the sheepy scent, the slight dust of it. I love the whole sensory experience and I am always happy to have more yarn.
This year, instead of having our yarn made into pre-measured skeins at the mill, we elected to have it delivered on huge cones to be made into skeins at home. Matt built a skein winder that automatically spins and measures each skein. Such a winder would normally cost $350-400. He made ours out of spare parts and some pvc pipe for about $150.
But please understand that this is Day 12 of winding skeins. I have rewatched the entirety of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” (11 hours and 30 minutes, for those counting at home) while winding skeins, and that just covered winding the white BFL and 1/3 of the white Border Leicester. I watched Ken Burns “The Roosevelts” as well. I also watched the whole “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series (23 hours 20 minutes!) while making the natural color Border Leicester skeins and white mini-skeins needed for new patterns that will be released soon.
Each skein comes off the line frequently enough to make tasks more complex than television impossible. Likewise, my hands need to stay clean, precluding anything like cooking or dyeing other yarn. Watching something informative makes me feel like my brain is engaged with something meaningful. I know I’m letting my nerd flag fly by admitting to my preference for documentaries and straightforward storytelling. The current selection of human-failure-intensive prestige dramas don’t appeal: to me, the world has enough genuine sorrow and pain. I cannot enjoy watching people suffer for entertainment. I left human services forever in 2010 for a reason.
I am happy to report that I am winding skeins from the final cone of natural-color Border, and I am really, really happy to be so nearly done. Stay tuned for 2019 yarn!
Last night, we could hear the logging trucks trying to drag their loads up the temporary road. At the top if the hill, the skidder helped pull the truck onto the ice-covered road using its chained tires. The logging job is almost done, but our logger is scrambling to get the crop off the field before the thaw starts to create mud. We are pleased by their work- the sheep will have plenty of grassy areas interspersed with shade for the hottest days.
We had a decent ice storm, causing traffic snarls in the more populated counties and causing us to go looking for the ice-devices for our boots. Having fooled around with Stabilicers, YakTrax and other similar items, we have gone hardcore. We use these:
So the rule is “no walking on the deck or stairs with the ice devices on”. Predictably enough.
The sheep, geese and chickens have taken the storm in stride. While we chip away at frozen metal, the geese walk with confidence. Did you know that they have little claws at the ends of their toes? Ignore the webbing for a moment, because those claws are sharp and can do damage! The geese appreciate that warmer temperatures have kept their water thawed and entertaining.
I appreciate that Matt went down to the woodchip pile created by the loggers. He hauled some chips back, and used them to treat our driveway when we ran out of salt. I have to say that the chip-traction is even better than the salt-traction. And a little friendlier to the earth, too.
The sheep are protected from the grim weather as they enter the final stretch of pregnancy. They have been relaxing, eating and growing ever-wider. I’m really hoping for lots of healthy lambs.
It is that time of year again! We are headed to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, where we have 350 skeins of Border Leicester yarn to sell along with many other fiber goodies.
For starters, both my Northern Borders and Derby Line yarns have been selling well. Even though the Montpelier Farmer’s Market isn’t an ideal venue for selling an item specific to the small part of the population that knits, the yarn colors and the tactile joy of touching yarn draw visitors in. In fact, I have sold enough yarn that I need to consider dyeing additional yarn to round out my color availability. My concern is not having the right amounts of the colors people want most. Sales at the farmer’s market have depleted some of my colors!
Another significant offering this year is hats. Specifically, this Kep design that my mother has developed. Keps are a traditional slouchy Fair Isle hat that features our Northern Borders yarn nicely. Mom has cranked out six hats, while I am still working on hat number one. She is really a knitting powerhouse.
I also have gobs of BFL wool that wants dyeing and final touches. Good thing Great British Bakeoff is available again!
The to-do list for the sheep is no shorter. Ten lambs ship on 9/27, breeding groups need to be arranged next week, and everyone gets a Selenium shot because our soils are very deficient. That is a whole lot of work!
Friday: I was cleaning up the house and buying groceries in anticipation of shearing on Sunday and my mom coming up to celebrate her birthday among the sheep.
Saturday: At 8am, Mom calls to say that Grandma is dying. I try to keep personal stuff off this blog so I haven’t talked extensively about this, but Grandma has been sick with dementia and heart failure for the last five years. She went into comfort care at the end of February. I finish chores and hop in the truck, but I get to New Hampshire about 30 minutes after Grandma passed. We spend Saturday together as a family, just trying to comfort each other after such a long journey with Grandma’s illness. We toasted Grandma with white wine with ice cubes in it, as was her preference and shared memories of her.
I had called Mary, our shearer to cancel shearing, but I realize that some distraction is just the right thing for the family. So I asked Mary if I could un-cancel our shearing on Sunday morning, so we could still have Mom’s birthday activity. This may sound a little heartless, but I hope you will believe me when I say that there was little left to process in this passing. We all were able to say our farewells to Grandma and we’ve been mourning every loss of memory and capacity as they have transpired. Her passing was a release and a reprieve from suffering.
Saturday at Midnight: I drove 3 hours back to Vermont and arrived at 10pm. Matt let me know that Pearl the BFL was in labor. At midnight, she delivered a ewe and a lamb. We checked them throughout the night, and on little sleep I woke up early to prepare for shearing.
Sunday Morning When I got to the barn at 7am, I found Amethyst the BFL in labor as well as Ohio-72! Ohio-72 had two rams at 7:30 and Amethyst had a ram and a ewe at 8:30. Matt scrambled to repair a broken lambing jug so we could house all of these new lambs.
BFL/Border twin rams
Some BFL twins
I prepared the pen for shearing and lugged our shearing board out to the barn. Needless to say, we weren’t entirely ready for Mary when she arrived to shear, but she knew we’d had a long weekend already. We were up and running in about 20 minutes. It took 4 hours to shear the whole flock. The ewes all looked relieved to be free of their hot fleeces. Meadowlark stopped panting.
We all enjoyed lunch together, dining on the breakfast sandwiches I had meant to make in the morning! Then we sat and relaxed for a bit before going to to the garage to sort some fleeces. Mom and I have an arrangement to get the wool to one of the mills we plan to use this year and we know we need to get it to them ASAP. We started skirting the 13 white Border Leicester fleeces and made it through 9 of them. The necks and backs of the fleeces were dirty and we threw away all of the britch wool, but the sides were perfect.
By evening, I was starting to feel a little scratchiness in my throat. We feted Mom with a lamb loin roast and brussels sprouts and potatoes. We had all of the ingredients for the cake I had meant to make on Saturday, but Mom wasn’t really feeling the need for more food, so we just ate the oranges instead. None of us had slept properly in the last few days, so we were all in bed by 8pm.
Monday: I woke up on Monday feeling very poorly. Mom and I got it together to finish the wool skirting, but Mom felt like she’d rather leave early than contract whatever was brewing inside me. I took to the couch and wrapped myself in blankets, and Mom headed home. Poor Matt has had to do all of the animal management for the rest of Monday and the beginning of Tuesday.
Tuesday: I felt much better after a good lie-down and a sound sleep. Despite still feeling weak and headache-y, Matt and I did our routine to release ewes and lambs from the bonding jugs where they’ve been getting used to each other for two days. We dosed each lamb and all of the ewes with Vitamin E and BoSE, and trimmed the ewes hooves. We docked tails only on BFL ewe lambs, leaving the tails long enough to cover the bum. Neither ewe lamb squirmed, so I think we were successful at minimizing discomfort (docking early and banding between the bones of the tail makes a huge difference).
We are now relaxing after too much stress, sorrow and sickness. We didn’t want to go to Town Meeting in case my illness is contagious, so that will wait for next year. It looks like Summer the ewe will have her lambs very soon, so the excitement continues even as we try to sit down for a minute. The farm never sleeps, even if the farmers would really like to.