Valley Bounty: Winterberry Farm
We love to make things ourselves, and we love to help others do that, too. That’s our real joy,” says Jill Horton-Lyons of Winterberry Farm.
A life shaped in part by the work of one’s own hands makes sense in a deep-seated way, and Jill and her husband and farming partner, Jim Lyons, have plenty to teach.
Their 50-acre farm in Colrain produces fiber, meat and eggs for sale, at the same time that Jill and Jim use it as a classroom. They run educational programs that give newcomers a taste of farming life and teach people new crafts — particularly using their fiber.
The farm itself is animal-based out of necessity. “We don’t have any flat space,” Jill says. “You couldn’t grow crops here, so it shows people the productive niche that animals occupy.”
And animals they have aplenty, including sheep (30), angora-haired goats (six) and rabbits (12), chickens (10), ducks (10), geese (four), a llama, dogs and a cat.
“All our animals are useful,” Jill explains, whether producing fiber, meat or eggs, or contributing to the safety and function of the farm.
Jill and Jim both started farming as adults. “I always wanted to be a farmer, and my parents thought that was ridiculous,” Jill says with a laugh. She worked other professions, but eventually her real calling won out. “I said to Jim, ‘I gotta do this,’” and in 1985 they started raising sheep in Leverett.
“When I was a kid I knit two scarves, and that was the height of my knowledge,” she says with amusement. “But I fell in love with the sheep, and you have to do something with the wool. So, I started spinning, then knitting and weaving. In some ways I’m like a perpetual kindergartner. I love to experiment, and I refuse to specialize.”
Before starting Winterberry, Jill and Jim visited other farms to take notes.
Then, “when we began raising sheep, people started asking us questions,” Jill remembers. “We realized the people who want guidance in shifting their lives towards self-dependence are people like us who didn’t grow up on farms. Now, teaching these people is our real strength.” Programs fall into two tracks: fiber workshops like “learn to weave,” and what-it’s like-to-farm experiences including how to raise sheep or lambing days where guests might see lambs born — or at least play with bouncy newborns. There are programs for children, families and adults, and they are happy to bring them to schools, libraries and assisted living centers on request.
In a normal year, Winterberry Farm sells mainly wool and angora fiber. Products are sold at all stages from raw to washed, “carded” to align fibers (think brushing very tangled hair with metal combs), spun into yarn and more. They tend to sell more of the processed products usable right away for handicrafts, many of which are hand-dyed by Jill in beautiful colors.
They don’t have a shopfront and don’t sell online. Most sales come from fairs, festivals and one-time markets they attend across the state. This year they didn’t attend any, given the pandemic, and didn’t hold a single workshop either. The safety logistics were too complicated, and as Jill says with a hint of admiration, “people from New England are sensible and scared.”
Ever the optimist, she was glad for a year to catch up on repairs and other needs while relying on cash from off-farm jobs, which have always supplemented their farm work.
Interestingly, while the pandemic undercut their business, it’s spurred a renaissance of popular interest in hands-on fiber skills. The logic is intuitive — tasks such as knitting balance meditative repetition with a creative challenge, focusing and calming the mind. Scientists agree that these activities reduces stress and may even stave off mental decline. Creating things with your own hands just feels good.
The internet makes developing a new skill very accessible. “There are great how-to lessons on YouTube,” Jill admits. Yet there’s something special about learning at the knee of an expert.
“I’ve always liked that human contact, whether teaching or taking a class,” Jill says. Winterberry Farm will host workshops once it’s safe, so check their website for updates as the year progresses (winterberryfarm.org).
Until then, crafters are advised to keep knitting their worries away, and those interested can look to the Valley ’s local artisan teachers to help take their crafts to the next level. High-quality local fiber and other supplies can be found using CISA’s searchable online farm and food guide at buylocalfood.org/findit- locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).