Rich in fiber: Tour will let local farms show off abundance, variety of sheep

Stone Farm in Charlton raises California Red sheep, one of just three farms in the state to do so. Photo provided

Stone Farm in Charlton raises California Red sheep, one of just three farms in the state to do so. Photo provided

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More than 30 farms over an eight-county area, including Vermont, that raise sheep, alpaca and rabbits will welcome visitors for a Farm to Fiber tour this weekend (Oct. 3-4) and next (Oct. 10-11).

“With so many fiber festivals canceled, the board of the Southern Adirondack Fiber Producers Cooperative thought the tour would be a low-key way to get the word out to get customers to come to the farms and see how the animals are raised, and the quality of the wool and other products,” said Mary Jeanne Packer, owner of Battenkill Fibers Carding and Spinning Mill in Greenwich, which spins the wool from many of the producers on the tour.

One of the other reasons for the feasibility of the tour is the number of sheep farms just in the local counties.

“We have as many sheep farms as there were 150 years ago,” Packer said. “Only Wyoming can make that claim.”

Except for a rare open house, many of the farms have never welcomed visitors (masks and social distancing are required). And although there are up to 1,000 breeds of sheep, many of the farms raise heritage breeds, some of which are considered threatened.

At Stone Farm in Charlton, Eileen Stone — with substantial help from her 17-year old son, Kieran, a senior at Burnt Hills/Ballston Lake High School — raises six California Red sheep, one of only three farms in the state to do so. California Reds are a hybrid breed started in the 1970s in California, so named because the lambs are born with cinnamon red coloring that turns to beige or oatmeal with cinnamon-colored flecks at adulthood. They are considered a medium-size sheep, with rams weighing up to 250 pounds and ewes up to 150, and are known for their calm, gentle disposition, according to the California Red Sheep Registry.

“I’d had chickens before, but I wanted to have a small farm to raise my kids to teach them where their food came from and to be in 4-H programs in the county,” Stone said. “We had to build the barns, and started with three ewes and a ram four years ago.”

She discovered the breed is not demanding and is very affectionate, and that each sheep has its own personality. For Kieran, it’s been a rewarding experience as he feeds and cares for them.

“I love the routine,” he said in an email. “I love going out every morning and seeing them. Before we had sheep, I didn’t know much about farming. Once we bought the sheep and I learned more. … I dislike factory farming. I would love it if all animals were born and raised in a field.”

The Stone Farm will be open only this weekend, Oct. 3-4.

People who pass by Cecilia Tkaczyk’s Barton Hill Jacobs Farm in Delanson might think they’re looking at goats because the animals have horns and are spotted. Not so. These are Jacobs sheep, a threatened English breed that was almost wiped out in the 1930s.

“Spotted wool then was not recommended for the wool pool, which preferred all white wool,” Tkaczyk said. “They were treated as oddballs. In England they were bred to be bigger for the meat. But in the United States, they’re now more the traditional size and smaller.”

Tkaczyk saw them for the first time roughly 20 years ago on a trip past a New Jersey farm. She’d grown up on a dairy farm and when she moved to this area, her land proved unsuitable for cows. Intrigued, she bought a few sheep and now has 50 Jacobs sheep. The rams weigh about 150 pounds and the ewes 100 pounds.

“They’re a small breed but great for backyard flocks,” she said.

Although the yarn is a bit rough, Tkaczyk discovered that when mixed with another yarn, the spots disappear and the wool comes out a heathery grey.

“It’s great for hats or sweaters,” she said.

The yarn has also sold well, as Tkaczyk has a yarn store in Guilderland (Cece’s Wool Yarns and More at Hamilton Square on Western Avenue). But the economics of raising sheep for their wool might surprise customers.

“It takes almost a year and a half to produce a 4-ounce skein of yarn that I sell for $18,” she said. “It takes a year to grow on the sheep, then I hire a professional shearer to come shear the sheep and then it may take up to three months to process the fleece into a skein that I pay $9 for.”

So, in essence, the customer is paying to feed the sheep.

“We love our sheep. We’re just hoping to recover our costs,” Tkaczyk said.

Besides yarn products her farm, which will be open only this weekend, will offer children’s activities such as making cat toys or yarn ropes, as well as walks in the fields. A food truck will also be on site on Sunday.

Laurie Kruppenbacher had grown up on a dairy farm, but decided in 2006 to have sheep for her Stoney Meadows Farm in Charlton. Her son, Sam, then 9 years old, did “a ton of research” and picked Cotswold sheep. With a heritage that dates in England to the time of the Romans, but introduced in the 1800s in the United States, the breed, which is considered threatened, is known for its lustrous, silky sheen, very soft fiber and natural curl. Their wool is generally white or silvery gray, although the lambs are born black. The breed, which has not been crossbred, has few medical issues and weighs between 200 and 300 pounds, according to the Livestock Conservancy.

“We started with two lambs and now have 28 sheep, and raise them for show and for their meat,” Kruppenbacher said. “I sell the yarn to a lot of fiber artists. The spinners like the curly quality.”

The farm’s sheep have done well. Last year at the National Sheep Championships in Kentucky, one of their ewes was made grand champion at the North American International Livestock Exposition. To date, Stoney Meadows Farm is one of about five raising Cotswold in the local area, Kruppenbacher said. The sheep have made a big difference in her son’s life.

“Sheep is what got him interested in being a veterinarian – big animals,” Kruppenbacher said. “He’s now 23, and I expect he’ll probably want to grow the flock.”

Stoney Meadows Farm is open only this weekend.

Check the Cooperative website at www.soadkfiberproducers.org for a map of the farms’ locations, individual directions and open times for the participating farms.

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