Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Knitting Sheepherder

Several years ago, my sister taught me how to knit.  As a sheep farmer, I thought it was important to know something about how to use all of the products my sheep produced.  As someone recovering from two broken arms (that's right - two!), I hoped that learning to knit would help me recover some manual dexterity.  On both accounts, learning to knit has been rewarding and enjoyable!  My skills are very basic - I've knitted several scarves and one simple hat - but I do have a much greater appreciation for the skill involved and for the versatility of wool.  Learning to knit also gave me the incentive to try to have finished products made from our own wool.

For the first time this autumn, we are attempting to market some of our wool directly to our customers, as yarn and roving (cleaned and carded wool that is not spun).  When we sheared the sheep in May, we selected what we thought were the 30 or so best fleeces (based on cleanliness, lack of hair - we have some Dorper genetics, and and quality of the wool fibers themselves).  In early June, I delivered 105 pounds of wool to Yolo Wool Mill in Woodland - about 45 miles from home.  Jane Deamer, the owner of Yolo Wool Mill, and her crew scoured (washed) and carded the wool and spun some of it into yarn.  Of the 105 pounds of "grease" wool I delivered, I received 54 pounds of back in the form of yarn and roving.

While the hard work of marketing is just beginning, this new enterprise looks promising from an economic perspective.  This year, I would have received $111 for the 105 pounds of wool I had processed, had I sold it on the commodity market.  While price this is better than that we received in past years, it just barely covers the cost of having the sheep shorn.  We paid $4 per pound (grease wool) to have the wool scoured (plus a $25 "membership" fee).  The roving cost an additional $12 per pound (clean wool), and the yarn cost $16 per pound (clean wool).  If we're able to sell all of our yarn and roving, we'll net about $1,100 on our wool enterprise.

This year's wool is a blend of our best wool ewes - our Border and North Country Cheviots, our Bluefaces Leicester cross ewes, our Coopworth ewes, and our East Friesian dairy ewes.  According to The Knitter's Book of Wool (by Clara Parkes), Cheviot wool is springy and dense, and suitable for outerwear.  Bluefaced Leicester wool is softer and works well for knitting and felting.  Coopworth wool is long-stapled and works for outerwear garments.  Parkes doesn't include Friesian wool, but my observation suggests that it has similar qualities - it's long-stapled and fairly soft.

While I would like to be able to do everything from start to finish with our sheep (raising them, butchering them, shearing them, processing their wool, etc.), it simply isn't possible at the scale at which we operate (and in the case of meat, it's not possible legally, either).  I also have realized that a viable community of small farms needs small-scale processing options - like Yolo Wool Mill.  If we can make a profit with our woolen goods, we'll help Yolo Wool Mill stay in business, too - it's all interconnected.

On your next visit to the Auburn Farmers' Market, look for Flying Mule Farm - I'll be the sheepherder with the knitting needles!

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