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Cows giving way to sheep, alpacas

Tour celebrates rise of ‘fiber farming’ in Washington County



Contributing writer


Dairy cows may predominate on the farms of Washington County, but over the past two decades there’s been a quiet resurgence in fiber farming: raising animals for their wool or fur rather than meat or milk.

The transformation will be on display this month during the annual Washington County Fiber Tour, which is marking its 20th anniversary. Twelve farms that raise sheep, alpacas, and rabbits will open their doors to visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, April 28-29. A new stop on the tour this year is Battenkill Fibers, a 2-year-old carding and spinning mill near Greenwich that processes wool from area farms.

The region’s fiber farms are benefiting from a national trend toward natural fibers and the fiber arts, including hand spinning, knitting, and felting, said Judy Leon, a tour organizer who owns Alpacas of Haven Hill in Cambridge.

Given the county’s fiber farms, along with the annual tour, an annual fiber festival held in September at the Washington County Fairgrounds and now the local mill, “we’re way ahead of the curve,” Leon said.

The proliferation of fiber farms is partly a return to the region’s past. Before Washington County was dairy country, it was sheep country, explained Mary Pratt, whose Elihu Farm in Easton was a stop on the county’s first fiber farm tour in 1992.

“There have always been sheep in Washington County,” Pratt said. “The farms locally were very diverse. Farmers grew eggs, potatoes, dairy cows, and sheep in a rotation.”

Washington County farmers took advantage of the “Merino boom” in the first half of the 19th century, when Spanish Merino sheep were all the rage. By 1845, the county had nearly 266,000 sheep and lambs, the most of any county in New York.

The local sheep population peaked in 1884 and again in 1942, but fell after World War II when cheap wool from Australia began entering the country, Pratt said. Meanwhile, the county’s shift to dairy farming was speeded by improvements in transportation and refrigeration, which allowed perishable fluid milk to be shipped quickly to distant markets.

Selling wool isn’t enough

For shepherds, it’s hard to make money on wool alone. Commercial wool prices plunged to 8 cents per pound a few years ago, said Karen Kennedy, manager of Battenkill Fibers. Clean white wool, the most desirable, is now up to 80 cents per pound, she said.

“You can’t get your primary income from wool,” said Sylvia Graham, who raises angora rabbits at the Fiber Kingdom in Salem.

Some hobbyists keep a “spinner’s flock,” which may have one animal each of five or six breeds so that the spinner has a variety of fiber textures to work with. Shepherds who want to make a profit from their flock may also sell lambs for meat and breeding stock, as Pratt does.

The first fiber farm tour 20 years ago had mostly sheep farms, plus Graham’s rabbits. Past tours have included llamas and cashmere goats, but the most notable change has been the rise of alpacas. This year’s tour features seven alpaca farms and four sheep farms.

Breeders began importing alpacas to the United States from South America about 30 years ago, Leon said. The small cousins of the llama have wool that is lighter and warmer than sheep’s wool, as Leon discovered when she lived in Peru in 1972-73.

Faith Perkins, another alpaca farmer on the tour, started with sheep, but she also spins and knits.

“When I was introduced to alpacas, the fiber was so luxurious,” Perkins said. “It’s comparable to cashmere.”

Fiber enthusiasts will pay well for fleeces and rovings (wool prepared for hand spinning), yarns, and clothing made from alpaca.

Alpacas are fairly simple to raise. More manageable than llamas, they’re hardy and don’t need grain.

“Fiber animals don’t need large acreage or lush pastures,” Perkins said. Her Quarry Ridge Farm in Salem “is mostly shale with a little topsoil,” she said.

Some alpaca farmers focus on selling breeding stock. The animals are still rare in this country and the breeding registry set up by the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association was closed after a certain number were imported, Leon said.

In part because of various barriers to importing more animals from South America, high-quality alpacas can command thousands of dollars from investors, although Leon said the prices have come down somewhat since 2008.

Soft wool, hard labor

Graham started with angora rabbits in the 1980s, when she wanted fiber animals but was still living in New Jersey.

“Rabbits seemed like a logical way to go,” she said, adding that they produce “exquisitely soft wool.” An 8- to 10-pound rabbit can yield 2 to 3 pounds of wool per year.

But Perkins warned that rabbits are “extremely labor-intensive.” Every rabbit needs its own cage, which needs to be cleaned daily, and the animal must be clipped four times a year.

Each clipping session -- and Graham does several a week for her 35 to 40 rabbits -- takes one to three hours, depending on how cooperative the rabbit is.

“They are very strong little animals,” Perkins said. They can bite, and their famous hind legs are very powerful, with sharp claws.

Fiber farmers can sell the raw fur or fleece directly to spinners, sell to a processor, or have a processor turn it into an intermediate product such as roving or yarn which the farmer can then spin, dye, or make into a product such as a scarf or knitted hat for retail sale.

Leon, who also does felting, sells yarn and finished goods at local farmers markets and goes to a New York City craft show at least once a year.

Perkins has most of her fiber processed into yarn, which she sells at local festivals and retail shops. She also sends knitted goods to a shop in Westchester County.

Graham sells a small amount of raw fur directly to hand spinners, but she has most of it processed into roving or yarn.

“Once in a while I get a clip so good I hang onto it and use it myself,” she said.

Showcasing variety

What makes Washington County a center of fiber farming? Leon and Perkins cited the availability of good land at affordable prices. As small dairy farms have gone out of business and big dairy farms have concentrated their operations on fewer acres, the land that isn’t so good for intensive corn and alfalfa cropping has come on the market.

Alpaca and sheep farmers are keeping the county’s rolling hills in agriculture rather than letting it go for development.

“There’s not much competition between farms, and a lot of cooperation,” Perkins said.

The dozen farms featured in this year’s tour aren’t the only fiber-raising operations in the county, but no one keeps track of exactly how many there are.

Flocks range in size from commercial operations like Pratt’s through hobby flocks to families who keep one or two animals in the back yard for their children’s 4-H project, said David Holck, executive director of the Washington-Warren Farm Services Agency.

Both Holck and Tom Gallagher, a livestock agent with Cornell Cooperative Extension, agreed that the numbers are increasing. Battenkill Fibers hosted a small wool pool last year, the first one in this area since the 1990s, and will hold another in June. (In a wool pool, the organizer contracts with a buyer. People with fleeces to sell are paid on the basis of weight and quality. All the fleeces collected are sold as a group to the buyer.)

Graham said the Washington County Fiber Tour grew out of a local hand-spinners guild that wanted to showcase its members’ goods and educate people about fiber animals. That mission hasn’t changed. The mix of visitors tends to be the same also: About half are fiber enthusiasts who are looking for materials, ideas, and possibly some livestock of their own; and half are parents and children who want to pet the furry animals.

All the farms in this year’s tour will offer demonstrations of fiber crafts such as spinning, weaving, dying, and felting, as well as fiber and other farm products for sale. Pratt’s land, which is protected by conservation easements, will be open for walking.

Participating farms will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, April 28-29. Admission is free. Locations range from Whitehall in the north end of the county to Easton in the south. For more information, visit www.washingtoncountyfibertour.org.





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