As Amanda continues along so proficiently at the back end of the fiber cycle from the handling of raw fleeces right on through to finished knitted loveliness, I have been chugging along on the front end of the process. This was the third summer with our sheep so we’ve been growing the herd slowly and steadily from two to four and now up to ten beauties, nine ewes and a ram.
Some of you may remember our very first foray with keeping sheep ended quickly and harshly as we unknowingly took on a couple of very sick ewes from a Craigslist ad a couple of years back. Well, the trauma of being transported in their condition caused an immediate and unstoppable slide which ultimately ended with both sheep dying within a couple of days. We were pretty rattled by the whole experience but took comfort in the wise words of the local livestock vet and, after a bit of deliberation, decided to keep forging ahead with our plans to be shepherds. First we moved away from private dealings with unknown parties and toward established farms with a track record and reputation for square dealing and healthy animals. This was the beginning of a couple of relationships that have served us well over the last few years. For advice on everything from worm prevention and inoculations to hoof trimming, shearing and proper food and housing they have been an invaluable, local resource. For, as you probably have all realized by now, as wonderful as the internet can be it can also be utterly maddening in its myriad of conflicting information. When we’ve gotten bogged down in that virtual mess it’s been nice to listen to the experience of others in our own neighborhood. Like many of the farmers I meet, their wisdom is completely humble and authentic as it comes from years of doing and trying, with numerous successes and failures alike. We soon got two more healthy ewes, Emily and Cinnamon, and we were back on track. Emily was already bred and within a few weeks she gave birth to Anne and Charlotte right here on our land. We were kinda green and a little bit nervous when those little lambs came but they survived and even actually thrived.
“I guess we’re really doing this” Amanda said as we stood by our makeshift lambing pen that first year, made out of pallets, and watched those little lamb girls latching on to their mama for the very first time.
"Yup, looks like we are!" said I in my best old Maine farmer voice, "So, what do we do with them now?"
"We feed them and then we make sweaters!" the mama said with a smile.
"Well good, that sounds pretty easy then."
They are pretty simple really, for the most part, the needs of the sheep. But seeing how we were starting from scratch there were a couple of things to be done to get them from lambs into sweaters. So, I built them a little shelter that was kind of semi-portable which is to say that you couldn't really move it very well but it was rugged and I could drag it around with my truck. We got a great bargain on about a hundred cedar posts and 1200' of woven wire fencing, from a local friend that had sold all of his sheep, and we were well on our way to being able to rotate some livestock. Of course, a hundred or so cedar posts don't just dig their own hole and on more than one occasion I went to bed with the repetitive motion of the post hole digger jarring away at my brain. But, as they say in these parts about good, honest, hard labor, "It's cheaper than therapy."
Over these last two plus years we've fenced in about two acres in five different sections which allows us to constantly rotate the sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys and pigs through each area in a healthy way. Meaning each section gets time to "rest" and grow without animals on it in between times of activity. We've written before about how overgrown our land had become in the decades that passed between when it was last used as a working farm and when we purchased it. Continuing to reclaim areas of pasture for the animals to graze has remained a priority. The benefits of that effort are many, including; the constant supply of firewood that comes from thinning out the trees in the pasture, the trees that remain have adequate room to grow healthy and large and, of course, the grasses quickly fill in the void where the trees once stood and provide more food for the animals.
(* sidenote * The pigs deserve huge amounts of credit here for their ability to turn over land and fertilize it to allow for new growth. Some of the areas where we've cut had no grass growing because of the heavy tree canopy. Just rolling the pigs through those spots had grass popping up the very next spring.)
The grass grows and they graze, they grow and their fleeces grow and grow until it's time to be sheared and then that happens. I've been slowly learning to how to shear our own sheep. I have a stand which totally saves my back when it revolts from being bent over a squirming sheep like a complete rookie (it's all in the footwork!). After a couple years of going it on my own I'm bringing in a professional shearer this fall to take care of that task and perhaps teach me a thing or two about technique...did I mention this tended to be humbling work?
So how much are those skeins worth? A lot. Maybe even priceless. For beyond the effort and the hours and the failures and the successes is a bigger picture. A picture that maybe isn't always clear at first. It's vague and sort of blurry but it feels good and it has substance and intrigue and ...heart. Financially speaking we know how much raising our own food saves us. Particularly, when we consider the benefit and cost of buying food that we know exactly where it came from. But, with the sheep, it feels more like an investment in our spiritual well being. The satisfaction of seeing the cycle all the way through, from birth to garment, is an enormous payoff in its own right and over time the actual cost will drop as well. The fences and structures are built now and only require a small amount of maintenance. We have shears and a stand and an emergency sheep medical kit! Amanda has her spinning wheel that soothes her mind after a busy day of balancing work and family. And we all have a pasture full of sheep that we can sit with on a crisp fall day and enjoy that feeling that you get when things just seem to fall into place...