Three years ago, fund-raiser and urban-planning specialist Pat Manning developed an idea to promote stronger community-farm relationships in the Hudson Valley. His plan stemmed from the growing popularity of local community-supported agriculture markets (or CSAs), for which consumers pay a fee to a farm and in return get a share of crops, produce, and meats each month. But Manning wanted to try applying the concept to wool- and yarn-producing sheep and goats. “I wanted to incorporate the CSA model to these fiber-producing animals, so that people could feel closer to the farm where the yarn for their clothes came from,” Manning says. Thus the Hudson Valley Fiber Farm in Hopewell Junction, the country’s first yarn CSA, was born.
Here’s how it works: When a share is purchased, the shareholder — or “shearholder,” as they’re known — is entitled to visit the farm at any time, invited to shearing days in spring and autumn, and given a package of the shorn wool. The wool has already been spun into silky, high-quality yarn — usually six to eight skeins, or enough to make a couple of sweaters — taken from cormo or merino sheep and Angora goats. Shearholders even have a say in naming the animals, which have been lovingly dubbed Peppermint Patty, Superman, Snickers, and Cinnamon, among others. “We’ll announce on the Internet whenever babies are born during kidding and lambing season,” says Manning, who is the head shepherd. “We come up with a theme and the others pick names. Our most recent theme was Disney, and now we have an Ariel, an Aladdin, and twins named Timon and Pumbaa.”
While visiting the farm, shearholders are welcome to pet the animals, or stay a weekend and lend a helping hand if they wish. “People who are a part of this generally want that sense of being next to the Earth,” Manning says. “Some will help repair a fence, others will just nap on the lawn. And that’s fine; the farm once belonged to my grandfather, who bought it as a place for underprivileged children to use during the Great Depression, so this land has always served as a place to be enjoyed.”
Not all shearholders make it out to the farm — members span 46 states and five countries — but they can still meet the critters that create their yarn online via the Lamb Cam. “We call it our Ewe-Tube,” Manning quips. “We received an e-mail from a family in Japan who said they loved watching it. Since our daytime coincides with their evening, they thought it was great that they could watch lambs being born in America in the morning, while they ate dinner at night.”
Since the Hudson Valley Fiber Farm opened, about eight similar CSAs have popped up across the country. Due to its success, Manning plans to open a retail store in Beacon this month, which will sell skeins of yarn, roving, and finished products such as hats, sweaters, blankets, and handbags, and also showcase the works of local fiber artists. “I really hope to emphasize buying local and buying through farms, not just Wal-Mart, a high-end department store, or from overseas factories,” Manning explains. “It’s so important to support your local farmers and to know that what you’re buying is helping your community.”