Valley Bounty: Wool

Cold and snow have blanketed the Valley. But locally-produced fiber can keep you warm during these wintery weeks. “Wool has innate properties for shedding water because of the structure of the fiber,” Suzanne Webber explained during a recent conversation. “So wool stays warm even when it’s wet.” Webber and Al Miller raised sheep at Brook’s Bend in Montague for years. Now that the pair has stepped back from farming, they have welcomed Ryan Richards and Little Song Farm onto their land.

Since moving his farm from Amherst to Brook’s Bend, Richards has taken over the flock and made it his own. Right now, he has about 20 Icelandic sheep. But he plans to grow the herd until it approaches the land’s capacity. “A lot of why I love raising sheep is because it’s so connected to the landscape and to the grass and the pastures,” Richards said. “They’re an incredible way to manage a large chunk of land.” The relationship between the sheep and the land goes both ways. The sheep keep the grass in check and the health of the pasture impacts the fiber bounty at the end of the year. “If you’re driving in the summer and it’s all this green pasture and everything’s growing really well, then you can think of the really nice wool you’re going to get in the fall,” Richards told me. Healthy pastures mean healthy sheep. “Then how healthy they are really contributes to the quality of their wool.”

Most farmers sheer their sheep once a year, in the spring. But Icelandic sheep have a different cycle of wool growth than other breeds. So, Richards does his main clip in the fall and a clean-up shear in the spring. He reported that their clip last October came out great. Despite draughty conditions through July and August, the pasture at Brook’s Bend fared well this summer, which kept the sheep in good condition. Fortunately, the dry weather stretched into the fall. “A drier fall is good for shearing sheep,” Webber explained. “For finer wool breeds like we have, being wet can felt the wool.”

Most shearers use electric shears, a heavy-duty version of what you’d use to trim a beard. But Richards brought in Charlemont-native Kevin Ford, who uses hand shears, for this year’s clip. “Kevin’s been doing it for a long time,” Richards said. “It’s just amazing being with him and seeing how calm he gets the sheep and how he works with the blades. It’s a really ancient method that he’s a master at. So just getting to be with him is such a gift.” During the shearing, Ryan set up a table to clean the wool in a process called skirting. He picked out the stray bits of grass, hay, and manure. Then he loaded the fleece into bales for storage. Eventually, he will send off the bales to a mill, where they will be processed into yarn.

Richards bred his ewes at the end of October. Their lambs will be born between the end of March and the end of April, on the doorstep of the grass coming in the spring. Then the process will begin again; lambs turn the nutrients in the grass into wool, which we make into yarn. So when you pick up a locally-produced fleece blanket for an extra layer this winter, remember: a taste of lush summer pasture is keeping you warm.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)