For the love of farming and fiber: Following dream requires hard work

The Post Star
By: Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli
Photo: Courtesy of Alpaca Culture

ON THE FARM — It’s easy to pine for the life of a farmer who raises cute, cuddly, luxuriously soft animals that don’t seem to mind regular nuzzles, cuddles and all-day-long smooches.

It’s easy to imagine strolling along rolling pastures just before dawn with a cup of steaming, excessively dark French-pressed coffee before feeding and mucking stalls.

To dream of being lulled into the tranquility of hand-spinning fibers into yarns that will someday become scarves, hats and socks. Or of lining jackets with the milled fleece captured from babies you have nurtured.

It’s comforting to daydream about spending a cold winter’s night with a big bunny secreted from the barn into the house and onto your lap by the fire; or perhaps curling up in the barn atop a bed of freshly lain straw to bury your face into the thick, woolly coat of a sheep in need of shearing.

And what about visions of spring’s new babies and piles upon piles of fiber from the just-shorn adults?

There are exquisitely fluffy bunnies, curly haired lambs, sassy, sweet and thick-coated alpacas, angora goats and merino, Icelandic and blue-faced Leicester sheep who easily share the fibers of their living, season after season.

Raising animals for their fiber is romantic, enticing and a lot of work.

The daydream of such a life rarely includes the sun-up to sunset work days, the round-the-clock watch over an animal who needs extra care, the feeding, cleaning, grooming, clipping and shearing, watering and veterinary care. Not to mention trips to the mill, fiber shows and never getting to leave the farm or go on vacation without finding reliable help to care for things while away.

Nonetheless, it’s a lifestyle choice that’s growing among mid-life career changers and those who never farmed before in what has been called a farm-to-spindle movement.

For freshly anointed farmer Jim Lawless, who owns Truthville Fiber Farm in Granville along with his lawyer husband, Jeff McMorris, and James Joseph and Jeremy Sharp, it started with chickens. And he is quick to admit he never farmed before.

“I wanted some chickens,” he said in an interview Thursday on the farm. “We are brand new. We have 35 alpacas and 40 chickens.”

Want to get a taste of this idyllic-seeming life?

Visitors can experience the fun of Truthville Farm and 11 others at the end of this month during the 25th annual Washington County Fiber Tour, which is free and self-guided. Stop by an area fiber farm, see the animals in their natural home, learn about spinning and weaving and talk with farmers about their farms.

“We might do some type of wet felting for kids and bring the sheep out so they can pet them,” said Lawless, adding that although they worked the Hudson Falls Farmers’ Market, this will be their first experience with the fiber tour.

Fiber Kingdom

137 E. Broadway, Salem

When Sylvia Graham started raising argyle bunnies for fiber at her New Jersey home, she got hooked.

“I said to my husband, ‘We’re gonna have to buy these rabbits a farm,’ “ said the CUNY professor emeritus who has been knitting since she was 4.

In 1987, they found the perfect location: an old farm in Salem that did not have any fiber shops nearby.

“We just started going north. I knew for at least a few years one of us would have to continue teaching,” she said, adding that the farm needed to be within driving distance of New York City. “I got out a map and put red dots where there were already shops. We were looking for a vacant area.”

She continued.

“When I moved up here, alpacas were not here yet,” she said. “All these little specialty farms cropped up.”

Initially, Graham was breeding to meet her personal fiber needs for weaving. And today, she still breeds for wool and for the health of the animal. “I try to carry bread-and-butter yarns, not fad yarns,” she said.

Graham, who has a Ph.D. in zoology and biology, has also done advanced course work in fiber arts and has nearly completed a Master of Fine Arts degree.

“I taught biology and geology and chaired the academic department,” she said. “And then at night, I was going to art school.”

When they bought their Salem farm, it had been sitting vacant for several years and the historic structure and barns needed work, she said. So her husband traveled several hours north each weekend to care for it.

Today, Graham teaches weaving and other fiber arts at her beautifully vintage weaving studio; she sells equipment like looms and spinning wheels; she sells addictingly soft angora socks, hats and gloves; and best of all, there are 40 gorgeous argyle rabbits that she herself clips four times a year.

“I can get two pounds a year per rabbit; that’s 25 percent of their body weight,” she said. “They put out a very soft, luxuriant fiber.”

Truthville Fiber Farm

69 county Route 12a, North Granville

Lawless said after they bought their farm about two years ago, they were interested in fiber farming and were thinking about raising alpacas. Their partners had raised them in Michigan. But as it turned out, a woman in western New York was looking for a home for her alpacas, and so they started fiber farming with nine girls and four boys.

The herd has grown to 35, along with 40 chickens, some ducks, two sheep and a few argyle bunnies, not to mention four children and three dogs.

Still, the farm is peaceful, like everyone is happy in their home, with fresh-smelling stuffed hay bins on the rolling eight acres dotted with trees, barns and large chicken coops.

Lawless admits he is busy and has to juggle in-house and farming chores. And even their children are learning about keeping up with farm animals.

Spend even five minutes with Lawless and it’s easy to see he loves the animals. And when he tells tales of their antics, his laughter is contagious.

Then he points out that alpacas and chickens are like potato chips. “You just can’t have one,” he said, adding that he has six ducks inside, brooding.

Truthville’s alpacas are Huacaya, from Peru.

They are funny, inquisitive and aloof, and when visiting the farm, most of the alpacas can’t resist peeking around each other to see who just walked up.

The alpacas get shorn once a year, and for the alpacas at Truthville, it happens in May.

“Our fiber is 100 percent alpaca, there are no blends,” he said, adding that the alpaca fiber does not have the lanolin like sheep do. “We sell raw, cleaned fleece, roving for spinning and processed for knitting … we just had our second batch processed.”

Dancing Ewe Farm

181 county Route 12, Granville

There are already babies on the ground, and within days there will be more, since 130 sheep at Dancing Ewe Farm are about to give birth, said co-owner Jody Somers.

Much like with Graham and Lawless, fiber farming evolved from other endeavors. And along with their Granville farm, Jody and Luisa Somers are currently resurrecting Luisa’s family farm in Manciano, Italy, where they grow olives and learn specialty cheese-making, among other things.

Dancing Ewe, initially purchased in 2000, was a run-down dairy farm. “Its neglected pastures were riddled with honeysuckle and briars ... deteriorating buildings,” Jody said, adding that at the time, he was pursuing a career in Large Animal Veterinary Medicine and training sheepdogs.

But an epiphany of sorts set him on a new course and he moved to Tuscany to learn the “tradition of making sheep’s milk cheeses.”

By 2003, he returned to the Granville farm and began transforming the crumbling structures, and Dancing Ewe took shape. For a while, they took the sheep fiber and stuffed it into cracks in the barn for insulation, but they then decided to stockpile it. When they had 1,000 pounds, they drove 14 hours with the fiber to Prince Edward Island for processing.

A thousand pounds translated into 85 queen-sized wool blankets. Some of the remaining fiber was vacuum-packed and sent to a seamstress in Italy, where the wool will insulate their Marema Region vests.

“It is a brushed cotton with the wool on the inside,” Somers said. “They are stunning.”

Today, in addition to fibers, Dancing Ewe produces authentic Italian cheeses and olive oils and hosts farm-to-table dinners on weekends.

“We started the farm-to-table dinners once a month,” he said. “Now we do them every weekend.”

Washington County Fiber Farm Tour

Farms are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 29 and 30 (unless noted otherwise). Free.

Visit alpacas, bunnies, goats, sheep and lambs, llamas and more. The event is free. For more information and for a list of participating farms, visit www.washingtoncountyfibertour.org/farms.html.

Read the original and view the photo gallery here.