Rare Herd’s Commodity is Unique Wool Colors

5/11/2013 7:00 AM
By Lisa Z. Leighton Central Pa. Correspondent

DANVILLE, Pa. — Marie Minnich is a fiber artist at heart. Since she was a young girl, she’s always been drawn to fiber art. Marushka Farms, whose name gives a nod to Marie’s Russian heritage, is 136 acres in size and traverses Interstate 80 near Danville, Pa. When she and her husband, Steve, both part-time anesthesiologists by trade, ventured into the sheep business in 2008, they had no idea just how quickly their business venture would grow. According to Marie, they were in the right place at the right time.

Initially, they didn’t know what kind of sheep to invest in. So Marie did what any fiber artist would do — she bought fleece from half a dozen sheep breeds and determined which one she would most prefer to work with as a fiber artist, looking closely at fleece color patterns and texture.

Their flock started in 2008 with six California Variegated Mutant (CVM)/Romeldales and nine Icelandic. Then, in October 2009 they had the opportunity to acquire Chris Spitzer’s CVM/Romeldale flock from Ohio.

Today, their combined flock has 300 sheep — and growing each spring. This year, they bred 110 ewes and expect more than 85 lambs.

The CVM/Romeldale breed is one of the most critically rare breeds of sheep in the U.S. In fact, there are only 500 purebreds per year on the registry. As such, their flock of CVM/Romeldales is one of the largest in the country.

One of the “personality” qualities of this breed, according to Marie, is their nurturing abilities.

“They are great mothers. They lamb easily and even the rams are gentle — except at feeding time,” she laughed.

Marie and Steve, along with farm manager Robyn Cragle, who has a degree in animal sciences from Delaware Valley College, have two primary goals in mind with their farm — supplying excellent breeding stock to sheep farmers throughout the country and producing the highest-quality fleece for fiber artists. They are also suppliers of Majacraft Spinning wheels and accessories. To date, they have sold breeding stock to farmers in the Northeast and as far away as Oklahoma, Minnesota and Colorado.

In addition to their gentle personalities, the flock offers some of the finest wool at shearing time. Marie explained that the quality of wool is measured in microns — the lower the microns, the higher quality the fiber. The breed standard for CVM/Romeldales is 20-25 microns. The Minnichs’ sheep typically have micron counts of 18-20, comparable to the quality and soft texture of Merino wool.

The color patterns are unique as well. Typically, there are three to four color patterns in a given sheep breed, but Marie’s flock of CVM/Romeldales offers eight to ten color patterns. Her Icelandic sheep exhibit five pattern combinations: white, gray, badgerface, mouflon and solid. Individual sheep may also display various shades of these colors, ranging from white, cream, light gray, tan, caramel, milk chocolate, silver, dark chocolate, dark gray and jet black. A spotting gene adds even more combinations, with many recognized and named patterns of white markings.

The wool at the farm is its prized commodity, and the sheep wear protective coats to keep the wool clean and dry. The farm hires a professional shearer once a year to collect it. Each sheep’s fleece is bagged, labeled and tracked. Tracking is done throughout the process so the sheep’s pedigree can be traced.

“Fiber artists just love that. Sometimes customers request the same fleece (from the same sheep) from year to year. They want to know information about the sheep — who it is and how old,” Marie said.

Marie and Steve both feel like they are at their desired capacity for the farm.

“We don’t want to get too much larger. We (want) to continue to focus on quality fleece and breeding stock,” Marie said. That, along with creating awareness about rare breeds is the mission of the farm.

“This is a great option for farmers looking for a value-added commodity. (This breed offers) high quality fleece and meat, and it’s a gentle breed,” Marie said.

Marushka’s wool sells for upwards of $18 a pound, far exceeding the price of standard wool. The yield rates from one sheep are approximately 5-6 pounds for the ewes and 6-8 pounds for the rams.

For more information about the farm, go to www.MarushkaFarms.com.

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