On Elihu Farm, a hundred baby sheep are playing and resting in the new spring grass.
“We have white lambs, black lambs, gray lambs, brown lambs and tan lambs. They have lamb races all over the barn, jump atop hay bales and sneak outside if we forget to block the doors,” Mary Pratt said in a March email to her Saratoga Farmers’ Market customers.
And her fluffy flock of frisky young ruminants will soon grow even bigger.
“We have about 30 more ewes due starting in early May,” Pratt said this past week in a phone call from the 150-acre Washington County farm that she and her husband, Bob, run in the town of Easton, about 20 miles from Saratoga Springs. “There are probably 200 to 250 animals here right now. And we have about 300 chickens.”
Next weekend, Mary and Bob’s place is one of 17 farms that you can visit during the 21st annual Washington County Fiber Tour, which will be the biggest event in its history.
Washington County Fiber Tour
WHAT: Driving tour of 17 fiber-producing farms and a carding/spinning mill in Washington County
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 28
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: Map can be downloaded at washingtoncountyfibertour.org or phone 677-5111 to order a map by mail. Maps are also available at each farm.
“We’ve never had more than 12 farms,” says Judy Leon, who raises alpacas with her husband, Kim Atkins, in Greenwich, at Alpacas of Haven Hill, their 74-acre farm.
Variety of visitors
“We do get such a mix of people. A lot of families. Fiber arts people come. And people who are thinking of starting farms.”
This year, there are five new farms on the free, family-friendly driving tour, which educates visitors about Washington County agriculture and animals that produce fiber for yarn spinning and weaving.
Along with sheep and alpacas, which are South American animals that look like small llamas, you can see rabbits and goats, including award-winning cashmeres raised by nuns in Greenwich. Battenkill Fibers Carding & Spinning Mill, a factory that processes natural animal fibers, will also be open for tours.
Yarn, fleece, socks, hats, sweaters and teddy bears will be sold at many of the farms.
At Haven Hill, Leon will show children and adults how to make felted soap, which she describes as “a washcloth and soap all in one.”
It’s made with a bunch of loose alpaca fiber, hot soapy water and friction.
“When you rub the fiber with your hands, it makes the fibers interlock,” she says. “It’s the original textile, [felt]. It was probably discovered by accident.”
At the Fiber Kingdom, a farm in Salem that has been on the tour for all 21 years, owner Sylvia Graham will show visitors how she raises ultra-furry angora rabbits.
“They are raised inside in cages. I will demonstrate how you clip the fiber. I shear them the way you shear sheep,” she says.
In the 18th and 19th century barns that house her spinning and weaving shop and studio, there will be ongoing demonstrations of how the rabbit wool is spun into yarn and woven into fabric.
At Elihu Farm, Mary Pratt will show visitors how she prepares wool from her Romney sheep for sale and how to judge the quality of fleece. On Sunday, her husband will talk to farmers and aspiring farmers about how to set up an electric fence.
“We also have a protected wetland if anyone wants to walk to the wetland,” she says.
The Pratts will also be selling lamb meat and eggs, as they do year-round at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market.
“It’s very nice. We really have a following at the market. It’s our primary outlet. And we sell to a few chefs in Saratoga,” says Pratt.
Meeting the animals
At all the farms, visitors can get close to the animals but interactions are closely monitored to prevent injuries and protect the animals.
“I have some very friendly alpacas,” says Leon. One of them, named Dante, “runs to the gate to see everybody. He’s so curious. But you can’t just run around with the alpacas. We bring them to the fence and they can be handled.”
At Elihu Farm, “some of the sheep should be in the barn, so people can see the baby animals,” says Pratt. “Sheep in general are a little shy of people but the rams [male sheep] will not be anywhere near people because they can be dangerous.”
Graham, the rabbit farmer, doesn’t allow people to roam free in the barn where her 48 bunnies live. “It’s too disturbing to the animals,” she says. “I pick out one or two that I bring forward for people to touch and see.”
What people won’t see is the hard work of raising animals.
A retired zoology professor, Graham started raising rabbits more than 25 years ago at her suburban New Jersey home and moved full time to Washington County with her husband in 1991. Since he died in 1999, she has been running the farm alone.
“They are very labor-intensive,” she says of the rabbits, and when they give birth, she has to be on constant watch.
“The babies are born naked, blind, deaf, unable to maintain their body temperature. If the mother does not put them in the nest and cover them with wool that she has pulled from her body, they won’t survive an hour. Sometimes with new mothers, they won’t feed them, so I have foster babies.”
She also carefully tracks the breeding of her German, French and cross-bred angoras to produce different colors and patterns.
“Managing your animals is not just shoveling poop out of a barn. There’s a tremendous amount of thought that has to go into it,” she says.
But Graham, who teaches spinning, weaving, dyeing and felting, gets satisfaction from “getting good litters and better and better wool. And I love the process of using the fiber and the final products.”
Sheep farming is “a very physical job,” says Pratt.
“I never find lambs being born as boring, even after 25 years. Just seeing those lambs come out and take their first breath. And I enjoy working with the wool.”
Preserving the past
Promoting locally grown food and fiber and preserving the farmland of Washington County is important to these women, too.
“The whole county was covered with sheep in the mid-1800s,” says Pratt. “Washington County had more sheep than any other county in New York and also produced the second most pounds of wool in the state.”
In a 2007 census, there were 1,842 sheep in the county, says David Holck, executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency for Washington and Warren counties.
“My guess is that there are 50 different producers in the county that would own those sheep, anywhere from a flock of a couple hundred of animals to some 4-H kids with a couple of sheep.”
The Pratts, who have legally designated their acres as “farmland forever,” say the land has been in farming since the Revolutionary War. “We wanted to make sure that it stayed in farming. Neither we or no one else can use it for nonagricultural purposes,” Pratt says.
Graham believes the fiber tour is important because it shows the public how “land that would otherwise be abandoned is going into these small specialty farms. There’s a lot of creative entrepreneurs,” she says.
“At a time when we’re talking about ‘shop local,’ you don’t have to buy that Chinese sweater, you can buy fiber that was grown right here and processed with great love.”
“The more land we can keep in farming in our county, the better we will be,” says Leon.