If you live in a city (or even the ‘burbs) and are touched with a fiber obsession, the thought of packing it up and moving to a farm to raise your own sheep is not too often in the back of your mind. It sounds so romantic doesn’t it? Tending your own flock, shearing and preparing the fiber for spinning. Spinning, then dying the yarn, then knitting with your creation, knowing everything that went into the process.
Has reality set in yet? Kids, job, partner, just doesn’t equal farm bliss. Well listen up and take heed. You can now, partially, live out your dream of running away to tend sheep with a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share from Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm.
With a share in the Farm you buy into the Farm and have a stake in its success. The goal is to have yarn or bats for spinning at the end of the process, but you get so much more. You have access to Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm’s blog, where there are updates on the farm’s goings on. A weekly email update, invites to shearing parties and a chance to visit the farm and help out. This is after all, part your farm!
This innovative idea was created by Co-founder, Susan Gibbs, who was once a producer for CBS news, who became burned out by the job. She took time off and by happenstance found a book on raising sheep and about eight months later ended up buying her first sheep.
In the beginning, the farm was more of a really expensive hobby. Gibbs racked her brain on how to stay afloat and have the sheep and farm pay for themselves. Having a share in their local vegetable CSA sparked the idea of a yarn CSA, because if you can do it for vegetables, why not yarn?
They put their first shares up on Etsy in their shop MVKnits with plans to have Gibbs’ mom buy the first share, but someone else beat them to it! The first shares went up for sale in Fall of 2007 for the shearing in Spring of 2008. The response was overwhelming and they ended up selling out. Since then their growth has been exponential.
Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm has about 65 sheep and goats. The sheep are sheared in spring and the goats in the fall. They have Angora goats and Cormo and Cotswold sheep which produce amazing fiber. Gibbs said, “It’s like I have 65 dogs who all have distinct personalities.” Some are cuddly and others are motivated by food. She is proud to know that the CSA helps people think about their yarn in a different way.
Through the blog and the weekly updates, you learn about the care of the animals on the Farm. You find out that Gibbs does not doc lambs’ tails, preferring to care for her animals in a more human manner. She said she has many vegan shareholders due to her practices and that shareholders have a better understanding of the process.
Since there isn’t a mill on the island, all the clippings are sent out to be processed. Gibbs makes a point to use small mills whenever possible. The latest clippings will be driven up to a mill located in Vermont.
Gibbs hates throwing anything away, so all the unusable fiber from the clippings either go into trees for birds to create nests out of, or into lining dog beds. She is an avid recycler and is always trying to find inventive ways to use every little bit.
After the fiber is processed, it comes back to the farm for dying. Gibbs has tried just about every dye possible and has settled on wash fast acid dye that use citric acid as the mordant. She explored natural dying but all the methods needed heavy metals to get bright colors and no where to properly dispose of the water waste. So for Gibbs the citric acid dye was the more eco-friendly choice.
All the yarn and fiber is hand dyed right at the farm. When Gibbs started dying she was very methodical, but each skein came out different then expected. She learned that dying is more of an art than science and those who work with hand dyed yarn know that each skein and dye lot will be a little different and part of its charm.
Buying into the yarn CSA is what Gibbs calls a “shared risk proposition.” You never know what will happen in a given year. The amount of fiber produced depends on such things like the weather and how many babies they have. She tries to mange share holder expectations saying more than likely you’ll get enough fiber to make a scarf and hat, and then pleasantly surprised when your yarn arrives and it is enough for a sweater.
The shareholders are very proud of their yarn and the knowledge that they have a stake in the sheep and goats that produce the yarn. Gibbs often gets many compliments from all of us who want to run away and start our own farm, many saying that she is “living my dream!”
Gibbs has been so successful that they are expanding to Hudson Valley. They are currently negotiating for a larger parcel of land on Martha’s Vineyard, but right now they are maxed out with their animals and shares. The expansion to New York will be very beneficial for people close by who want to visit the farm when they buy a share.
Gibbs is also in the process of implementing carbon offsets for all of her shipping. She hopes to implement this new idea in the coming weeks, by proving her shareholders offsets through Native Energy.
[Images courtesy: Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm.]