Sheep Farming - Then + Now
Two sheep live in the hillside pasture below my house on the west side of Craftsbury Common. The sheep, whose names are Harley and Phoebe, belong to Heidi, a neighbor who lives in a cabin by the Black River in Craftsbury Village and doesn’t have a summer pasture of her own.
Harley and Phoebe serve no practical purpose aside from keeping the grass down, but they don’t require much attention either. I keep their water bucket full, and they keep me company when I’m working in the vegetable garden. Occasionally I’ll scratch their backs and give them a handful of windfall apples or pears from the orchard on the southern edge of the pasture fence. Come snowfall, Heidi will transport Harley and Phoebe to a barn that serves as their winter quarters, and the snow-covered pasture will be empty until the spring.
In the years leading up to the Civil War there were sheep grazing on practically every hillside in Vermont. An American diplomat imported two hundred prized Merino sheep from Spain in 1810, and flocks of the heavy-fleeced Merinos were soon established throughout the state. High wool prices swiftly led to an economic boom, and Vermonters hustled to clear new sheep pastures on the rocky hillsides of the Green Mountains. Woolen mills were built in the river towns, and by 1840 there were about 1.6 million sheep grazing in Vermont.
The bust came soon after the boom, however, and by 1850 the Vermont wool industry was in decline. Demand for wool blankets and uniforms during the Civil War caused a temporary spike in prices, but competition from Western states and the vast sheep ranches of Australia soon made Vermont’s sheep industry unprofitable.
The Merino sheep boom had profound economic, ecological, and cultural impacts on Vermont. Fortunes were made, and patterns of settlement established. Forests turned into fields, and back into forests again. An agri-culture was forged, a way of life made viable by the land and yet ineluctably constrained by the limits of the landscape. Vermonters - independent, hardy, creative, and resourceful - found themselves dependent on the whims of urban markets, the fates of their farms entwined with world events beyond their control.
In today’s Vermont, the landscape of agriculture is changing once again. The iconic dairy industry, which took root in the aftermath of the Merino boom, is bumping up against its own economic and ecological limits, as dairy farmers find themselves at the mercy of market forces, arcane milk pricing formulas, and a tangle of regulation. Vermont farmers are adapting, as Vermonters do, and when the editors of State14 asked if I’d like to visit Cloverworks Farm, a newly established animal welfare certified sheep farm in Albany, Vermont, just north of my home in Craftsbury, I jumped at the chance to explore how a small-scale sheep farm might fit within the ongoing evolution of Vermont’s working landscape.
Farmers Katie Sullivan and Matt Wimmer established Cloverworks Farm in July of 2017 on 63 acres of rolling pasture and forestland with sweeping views of the Lowell Mountains, now crowned with a row of industrial wind towers. Katie handles sheep husbandry, while Matt keeps the array of farm equipment up and running, a task made easier by experience from his previous job of maintaining large-scale printing machines for a Vermont company called Subatomic Digital.
The couple moved to the Northeast Kingdom from Williston, a suburb of Burlington best known for big box stores but also home to the Catamount Outdoor Center, where Katie and Matt kept a small flock of ten sheep. Now, their flock numbers 50 adult sheep and about 75 lambs, which include Border Leicesters from a flock bred by Sue Johnson of Hinesburg, Vermont, plus Bluefaced Leicesters that Katie has carefully selected from flocks in Ohio and Maryland.
Sheep were grazing in a pasture by the roadside when I visited Cloverworks Farm on a Saturday morning. Katie was moving fence, and I walked up to say hello, passing along a hedgerow of gnarled apple trees. In less than a minute it became clear that Katie’s passion for sheep runs deep. She spoke about the merits of various sheep breeds with a fervor that reminded me of a music fan pontificating about her favorite bands.
“We’ve been grazing sheep everywhere we can this year,” she told me. “Including the front lawn.”
Living with sheep on the front lawn seems something of a dream come true for Katie and Matt, who chose the location of Cloverworks Farm with an eye towards its potential for rotational grazing systems that would allow the flock to move regularly onto fresh grass.
“We like some variation in the land,” explained Katie. “If you’re growing corn, you want the land to be exactly uniform, whereas for sheep farming some diversity is a plus. In times of drought it’s helpful to have wet pockets and patches of shade trees.”
Variation in the landscape is good for raising sheep, and diversity is also a key strategy for the business plan of Cloverworks Farm. Katie, who describes herself as a farmer with a passion for spreadsheets, is working hard to establish multiple revenue streams by marketing a wide array of specialty products, including humanely raised grass-fed lamb, fleeces and pelts, farmstead yarn, greeting cards, and handcrafted woolen goods. Even so, finding a path to economic viability for sustainable sheep farming has been challenging, a puzzle that Katie addresses with radical honesty on the Cloverworks website and blog.
“It feels as if we jumped from the land of steady paychecks and into this uncertain world,” Katie told me. “I just wonder...is this going to work? Is it even possible?”
Is it possible? This is the question that comes up again and again for small-scale farmers, and for any entrepreneur with enough passion, capital, and gumption to take the leap. For Cloverworks Farm, and for hundreds of other small Vermont farms, the answer hinges as much on the meaning of the Vermont brand as it does on the quality of the food, fiber, and specialty products that farmers take to market. Katie put it like this:
“You can tell a story about the yarn, and the story is worth as much as the actual wool. From a purely technical standpoint, our wool is not a superior product to the wool that’s being sold wholesale for 25 cents a pound. But with the added value of storytelling it can be worth exponentially more.”
Back in the days of the Merino sheep boom, Vermont wool was a commodity product, interchangeable with wool from other places. Vermonters were at the mercy of the market, and even the most skillful and attentive sheep farmers were unable to keep their flocks when that market changed.
Now, as sheep return to Green Mountain pastures, the survival of farms like Cloverworks may well depend on steering clear of the commodity wool market altogether, and reaching a critical mass of customers who appreciate the infusion of story, craft, and loving care that arrives with each skein of yarn, packet of sausage, and batt of hand-dyed wool.
Lead image: A flock of sheep in a former dairy barn on Settlement Farm in Underhill, Vermont