An Inside Peek into Small Farm Life
June 27, 2018
By AMY ADAMS
To say that “fiber farmer” Tammy White is a busy woman would be an understatement. And to only address her as a farmer would certainly not encompass the many hats she wears. Add to the list: natural dyer, shepherdess, homesteader, soap-maker, baker, teacher, caregiver and craftswoman, and you’d be on the right track. These are some of the reasons that White played a central role in a longer story we published this past winter, on the many unknown virtues of wool and sheep ranching: “The Hidden Powers of a Sheep.”
As small-farm life has been on the rise over the past decade (with farming being one of the fastest growing career fields for Millennials), we were curious about what life on a small farm is like. We spoke with Tammy about her work and are happy to share the insight, wisdom, craftsmanship, and passion she brings to her farm.
How did you end up running a Fiber Farm in Vermont?
I’ve lived on this small farm in a small corner of a small state since 1988. When my children were very small, in the early 90s, I talked and walked with them through the seasons, raising our food and small flocks until they, in turn, matured and followed their own passions. Suddenly the full weight of the farm was on me. When the infrastructure is there, when the knowledge and experience are there, it’s hard to shut the door on good and passionate work. Instead of downsizing, I made the decision to grow the farm and grow production.
My business and marketing knowledge from my college days helped me find customers for my expanding inventory, and helped the farm to cover its expenses. My experience as an educator helped me to share knowledge and provide agri-tourism opportunities to help fund more and better fences, and buy hay for winter. Years of cooking with my grandmother and my children helped me to find a market for homemade, baked-from-scratch goods that covered the health expenses of caring for livestock. Not a moment — nor a shred of wisdom, knowledge, muscle or sweat — can be wasted when you’re trying to break even in farming.
What types of animals do you have on the farm?
Wing & A Prayer Farm is home to fiber flocks, including a growing herd of alpacas, more than 70 sheep (of specific and some crossed breeds), and Angora & Cashmere goats.
We have poultry — 50+ layer hens to provide eggs for locals — barn cats and house cats, livestock guardian dogs, an old Spaniel, and a young Border Collie. We have three miniature donkeys, horses, and a pony. The tall and the small, the thin and the portly — an American Guinea Hog named Princess Peppermint that came to us as a bottle baby — and every one has a name (except the hens; they’re all versions of “pretty biddy,” “sweetie,” “love,” and “honey”).
Besides producing wool, what other work do you carry out on the farm?
The first and foremost work of each day is tending to the flocks and making sure that eyes are bright, buckets are freshly filled, forage is available and everyone is contentedly chewing their cuds, filling their stomachs or resting in a clean bed, if that is their choice.
The fiber quality is directly related to the health and wellbeing of the animals. Any stress can create a “break”, or weakness in their fiber, and so I work very hard to make sure their lives are as stress-free as possible. Weak fibers will make weak textiles — the reputation of the farm and the flocks is at stake when we turn out inferior fibers. The same is true for humans — it’s easy to know how to look after animals if you know how to look after yourself and your loved ones.
Because it is important to me to care for the fiber in its processed form — yard and roving — before marketing, I also have to scour and treat all of the fiber for hand dyeing that is not sold as a natural color. The animals provide their own colors in the yarns that we make, but if there is outside color added through natural dyeing, then I must prepare the fibers first by having them very clean and pre-mordanted.
It is a very laborious and time-consuming process, but ensures the best and longest-lasting results. Every day includes me washing 20 to 40 skeins of yarn from our flocks, and preparing them with natural mordants that have been harvested from local gardens and fields, or with an alum mordant solution that I conjure.
The skeins that have been prepared previously will be added to a dye-vat solution to be slowly and naturally dyed. The yarns that have been dyed over a space of two days and are dried, are then rinsed and then dried again. The finished yarn must be skeined and tagged — every day.
Each and every skein that I then sell will have been hand-washed, hand-prepared, dyed, and hand-skeined and tagged by me, my daughter, my mom or a friend. There is not enough profit in small fiber-farming to allow for staff or additional processing, so I do much of the work myself.
Additionally, the other work of planting seeds, and cultivating and growing dye garden plots, has a continual allotment of time devoted to it. Winter is a time to forage and derive color from saved nuts and bark to make vats of rich caramels and amber hues, vs. the greens and yellows that are prevalent during the spring and summer growing seasons.
Growing our own flowers and plants for naturally dyeing our own fibers is time-consuming, but richly rewarding when the actual color is growing within view of the actual fibers growing on the animals. The sheep graze in the fields near the gardens, the manure from the animals’ winter paddocks is added to the compost piles that cultivate our gardens. It’s a continuous cycle with little waste. I ponder all the time that these small ruminants are grazing and nibbling the grasses, fertilizing, aerating and cultivating the pastures, which sequester carbon and bring it deep into the earth again. The beautification of the fibers we turn out into the world are so much more than meets the eye, so much more than a pretty color on a pretty skein.
Another value-added product from our flocks are wool-filled duvets, which we hand make. We process the “waste wool”, that which is deemed not high-quality enough to make yarns, into batting that fills handmade and hand-tied quilted, organic cotton comforters. We also make laundry dryer balls with the waste wool, for an organic method of static removal in the clothes dryer. All of these can be found in our online store.
I also make homemade, cold-processed soaps using tallow from our animals and our garden’s flowers and herbs. The upfront, labor-intensive process of rendering tallow and then making soap is balanced by the curing and aging of the soap before cutting it into bars, and packaging and selling it.
Moreover, I run a small from-scratch bakery to provide home-baked pies for events and local stores. An order of 20 to 30 pies is not uncommon; I will make the crusts and fill them in the evenings, then freeze them until it’s time to bake and deliver.
Each day, the eggs I collect need to be cleaned, crated, and delivered to local customers. Our poultry have enjoyed free-ranging most of their lives, but the threat of a fox, or of their escaping and eating the crops, sometimes limits them to confinement in a fenced yard.
Agri-tourism is yet another way of helping the farm to support itself: Our farm is open to small school groups and closed workshop groups, has an Open Farm Day once or twice a year, and hosts visitors by appointment. Our animals are all friendly and enjoy interaction with visitors, which also provides unique experiences for those that are traveling from an urban environment.
If Craftsmanship Quarterly readers are interested in visiting us, they can contact me through our website to inquire about an appointment for a farm tour.
Describe how your farm fosters community.
Our farm is a “happy place to live and grow,” and we have always been open to hosting events and activities to share on the topics of homesteading, farming, and creating community. As part of our mission, we teach the benefits of fiber farming and show how sustainable small farms are doing their part to contribute to the local economy — while at the same time “greening up” the Earth.
Local restaurants, accommodations, and farmers have enjoyed participating in our agri-tourism efforts by providing visitors with meals, housing and products, and gaining new repeat customers. Our local feed store and area contractors have been able to benefit economically from our work here on the farm, and so we support their payroll with our own work.
What are some of the challenges you face?
I’ve never been great at time management; I simply don’t prioritize it. I feel like that makes it challenging for others to work with me, but it doesn’t affect my production overall.
I try to be optimistic about all challenges. There are daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal challenges in farming, and though my back is not as strong as it used to be, my arms are stronger. My checking account is down, but my assets for turning out quality finished products are up. I don’t have as much energy for late-night baking as I used to, but I’ve learned to manage time a little better in the wake of fiber production, now that I have a better understanding of processing and marketing finished products.
That said, physical stamina and finances are my main challenges in managing a full-time farming career. However, the amount of passion and faith I have in the work that I do helps to offset the anxiety. I work very hard at maintaining a positive attitude, to be at my best for troubleshooting and accomplishing hard things with grace and ease.
Where do you see the future of small fiber farms like yours going, and how can they help positively affect climate change?
I see it as a good time, but a hard-working time, in our Earth’s history for small farms to play an active role in educating society about replacing synthetic fibers with natural fibers. Protein and cellulose fibers can be obtained at a much smaller cost to the environment and at the same time, restore the atmosphere, and improve community by being approachable and a part of conversation, vs. the industrialized and dangerous economy of “fast fashion” and synthetic fibers.
By raising sustainable and clean crops such as fiber animals, small farms can contribute to local economies with fewer harmful greenhouse-effect gases, and at the same time, reduce the carbon footprint made by past harmful practices. Smaller flocks and crops can restore the soil health, stimulating healthier plant life, which pulls CO2 out of the air around us, drawing it down into deeper and stronger root systems, rebuilding the soil to support the next generation, and so on. The small farm will grow what is seasonable and sustainable, with little to no additional and unnatural supplementation, keeping scale and economy in balance and the Earth healthier. It is in the small farmer’s best interests to keep their flocks and crops naturally and sustainably healthy without added expense and work, and therefore more manageable in the long-term.
By educating consumers to know more about where their fibers come from, where their waste goes, how the “fast fashion” movement has harmed the Earth and the future of the Earth, we can interest and hopefully encourage a movement toward natural fibers. Small fiber farms can take a role in education about re-using textiles, repurposing and mending and cultivating natural fibers within consumer’s wardrobes to help shape a “new’”old-fashioned industry. It is also important for a small farm to inform people about other uses of natural fibers, such as in insulation, manufacturing, and replacing synthetic fibers such as those in vehicle panels and building materials.
As a craftswoman, do you see a resurgence of the handmade?
I am very involved in maker communities, and encouraged and inspired by the growth I’ve observed over the past several years. A telling way of knowing that handmade and homemade, handspun, mending, thrifting and homesteading are having a resurgence is the number of students that are interested in taking classes that I offer on the farm, or in other venues.
Our sheep-shearing school sells out before we even post dates for upcoming seasons. There are waiting lists of interested folk that want to learn more about how to do things for themselves, in their own time and space, with materials and ingredients they can see for themselves.
Sales of our farm’s products is also indicative of the growth of the maker movement. When we first started selling our farm’s fiber, the inventory would stockpile as there was less interest and awareness of farm yarns and the importance of “knit local.” It has taken some time, but the movement is gaining momentum, and it is heartening to see young and old sit side-by-side during a workshop.
How do you manage your time? Do you have a staff to help?
I’m constantly productive, from the moment I wake until the moment I sit down at night. The flow of the day includes moments of restoration when I am bonding with the animals in the duties of health checks. There is much peace and fulfillment when you are earning an animal’s trust and spending time in their company. It helps to sustain me for all of the harder parts of the days.
I don’t have a staff, but will send out a call to local friends to help me unload a hay truck when the hay is in. My youngest daughter is away at school, but whenever she is home, she is my right arm. She helps me with the gardens, the animals, the farm and home maintenance. And year-round, I have two local farmers that would pitch in, in an emergency. They are young woman that run an equine stable who have helped me throughout the years.
Do you offer apprenticeships, or take people under your wing?
I have had a college intern that was very interested in fiber and fiber art for a couple of seasons, as well as an incredibly driven and smart teenager student who has been helping for the past three years. Her parents surprised her with a gift of a “day on the farm” for her thirteenth birthday, and the rest is history.
She is hoping to study veterinary science in college, and her energy and commitment make her a valued member of our team. She now has input on grazing, breeding, and healthcare strategy. I am very invested in helping to teach as much as I can while working with students, knowing that it is a return to the next generation.
Do you also teach your craft(s) or hold workshops?
I teach workshops in the skills that I have in homesteading, shepherding, and fiber art. I share needle felting and natural dye workshops, pie-baking and sheep shearing, floral arranging and weaving, soap-making and dye garden classes here on the farm, and by invitation at other venues.
The sheep shearing workshop is taught by our own sheep shearer here on the farm, and I facilitate as well as handle the animals and teach wool-grading and handling after the fiber is off of the animal. I teach small ruminant and poultry caregiving classes as well.
The workshops can run from one day or an afternoon up to several days, and I host teachers of fiber arts to come and give a series of classes to guests. We facilitate the gathering and offer meals between classes, as well as entertainment and farm tours. The workshops are a wonderful getaway for makers that like to connect their fiber arts to a fiber farm, and there have been classes offered that run the gamut of fiber arts: from rug-making to embroidery, knitting, crocheting, and more. We’ve hosted herbal and floral workshops, as well as bread-making and pie-making workshops.
What is your most prized possession and why?
For sentimental reasons, I sleep with a sheepskin on my bed every night to remind me of Mac, a little Cormo ram lamb that didn’t make it. His pelt reminds me, every day, that I am only human. I can do my best and work my hardest, but I can’t save everyone. I never will ever forget the day he passed and my good guard dog, Joan, lay next to him the entire time until he slipped away. Only then did Joan get up and move. And then I knew he was through fighting, and he was finally at peace.
For more information about the benefits of wool, check out our Craftsmanship Quarterly article, The Hidden Powers of a Sheep.
All images courtesy of Wing & A Prayer Farm.