Imagine a Farm...
The Seed is Planted
Talk is Sheep is a series of articles for anyone who has ever thought about leaving work in the cubicle for work in the country. For those wanting to trade the suburban backyard, for the back forty. I have done just that, pursuing a dream to raise sheep along with my human kids, and begin a farm business. I had a passion for all things fiber, and I wanted to be immersed in all of it. I loved knitting, spinning, weaving, and felting. So, I wanted to design yarn from the hoof on up. I have been a yarn farmer for over 20 years now. I have raised, cashmere goats, sheep, angora rabbits, and chickens, right along with my kids. I have dabbled with a market garden and have built up a successful farm and yarn business, Sweet Tree Hill Farm. Your dream might be to raise vegetables to sell at a farmer’s market or raise milk goats for cheese and soap making. Maybe you want the freedom the country seems to offer, instead of having to follow homeowner’s association’s rules. What ever the reason, my experiences can provide inspiration, or a dose of hard reality. I can show you where my choices led, and perhaps provide ideas, knowledge, and insight as to whether country living and working is for you. Or maybe you know working a farm is not for you, but you enjoy living the farm dream through other’s stories. I will help you experience farming without leaving your chair. From time to time, I will provide fiber craft ideas, recipes from our kitchen garden and introduce you to my animal co-workers and beautiful farm. My plan is to publish weekly articles every Sunday, when I take time to reflect on my week and do fun things. So, get those work boots ready. And let’s hike towards a look into what working a homestead is about.
How the farming seed was planted.
I don’t know where the idea of making a living on a farm came from. I grew up the daughter of a Marne Corp officer and a homemaker. I lived in the shadow of Washington, DC and the later, near the French Quarter in New Orleans. I had never experienced what it was like waking up with the chickens. Yet I found myself daydreaming about farm living while in my cubicle in Richmond, VA as a customer service rep for a trucking company. My career had gone from managing photo labs out of college to becoming a travel agent for American Express moving businesspeople …to moving freight for Overnite Transportation.
I was a working mom with 3 boys, soon to be four, married to my best friend who worked for a car dealership as a parts manager. Nothing about our lives or experience screamed country living. Yet I found myself reading articles about raising alpacas and sheep. During my lunch breaks I knitted and considered what a knitting business might be like, especially if I raised the yarn. A year before my husband and I got married, we bought 11 acres in the county of Powhatan, a suburb of Richmond, VA. Living closer to nature, on a bit of acreage, was a yearning for both of us. The parcel was part of a newly subdivided farm. This farm was part of an old land grant to Huguenots back in the early 1700’s. Each parcel was about 10 to 15 acres and had never been built on until it had been subdivided. Our acreage was the last to be purchased. It was a simple long rectangle shaped property with a 3 acre pasture in front along the dirt road and the remaining was wooded. So, we decided to build a small house in the woods, and keep the pasture for some kind of livestock, a fiber animal like sheep or alpaca. My first choice was sheep, but I wanted to do my research and figure out what it was I really wanted and why. And which breed. This turned out to be a wise step. I needed to figure out what my goals were before diving into this big commitment.
What were those goals? Did I want something just for my own personal fiber needs, or did I want to create a business? Not every farm is a business. Sometimes people want a hobby to enjoy without the added challenge of making a living at it. I was leaning towards wanting to make a living, even though the notion scared me. I was making ok money at Overnite Transportation, but wanted a job of my own invention, and away from an office cubical. I was hoping to do something outside, in fresh air, that did not involve a long commute. I wanted to involve my children and teach them something about nature.
I looked back to my upbringing for clues into why I might want a farm. Farming was a dream my dad had. He grew up in Amish Country in Western Pennsylvania and often worked on the farms for extra money. He considered being a large animal veterinarian and he majored in Animal Husbandry at the University of Maryland. But there was a military draft going on when he graduated, so he ended up joining the Marine Corp as an officer and served twice in Viet Nam and made the military his career. But when I was small, he shared his love of animals, both wild and domestic. When I was six, my dad was driving my family and we passed a cleared lot (soon to be a shopping center) near our newly built home in Dale City, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. I felt our chevy station wagon bump, then screech to a stop at the side of the road. My dad had hit a raccoon. His first instinct was to see if he could help it. He got out of the car and grabbed an old sack from the back and went looking. Well, it was nearly dark and with no buildings around to shine their light, Dad could not find the raccoon who had darted off after being hit. My mom was relieved. I don’t know why that tiny tail stayed with me all these years, except it taught me to have reverence for animals, that each life had importance. A lesson to tuck away as I get deeper into figuring out this farming thing.
Later, during life in Dale City, we used to go on hikes in the country as a family. I loved those outings, away from suburbia. It was invigorating to breath sweet air scented with fern and wild mushrooms growing under a tall canopy of trees. I remember crossing creeks on top of fallen logs, looking for tadpoles in those creeks. During one of those hikes, my dad found some kind of egg on the path. He tapped it with his boot and the soft egg tore open, and out of it lay a tiny box turtle. Truly a wonder to my eight-year-old self. After pleas from my siblings and I, Dad thought it ok to bring the turtle home with us. He promptly named him Irving. We had Irving for years as one of our collection of pets that included a Siamese cat, named Mr. Ming, a Kerry Blue Terrier named Patty, several fish, and my special friends, several mice named Charles, Geraldine, Fritz, Georgeanna, Jaqueline, and Samantha. Over the years of growing up, we would have other dogs and cats. Caring for these pets was my total exposure to raising animals. Clearly, I was lacking livestock experience. But spending lots of time outdoors, running the nearby creeks, playing, and building forts in the woods, and doing lots of camping as a girl scout, helped to foster my love of nature and being out in it on a regular basis.
I loved animals, I just needed to learn what was needed to responsibly raise livestock such as sheep, goats, and other fiber animals. I knew I had a mountain of knowledge to absorb. So I began the climb. And I prayed about it. I started the journey by changing my job away from downtown Richmond, to working in the county I was now living. The thought came to me, that I was living in a semi-rural county, I ought to get to know it. I should learn what resources were available. And I could not do it working in the city. I was lucky to find a job at the local county newspaper, Powhatan Today. It might seem odd that working for a newspaper could teach me something about farming. I am smiling now as I think back on how many farmers I had met because of the newspaper, and how covering a story led me to meet educators in agriculture and so much more.
So come back for my next article as I introduce you to a small county newspaper and a county named after the father of Pocahontas and how my farming journey begins with writing a little article about goats.
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