Education and Celebration

1/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

Open House Showcases Sheep, Fiber and a Preserved Farm

NORTHUMBERLAND, N.Y. — The animals at Foster’s Sheep Farm look and feel a whole lot different than they did a few days ago.

The family-run enterprise hosted an open house Sunday, Jan. 20, when professional shearer Gwen Hinman of New Hampshire separated the 52-head flock from its warm, cozy fleece, an annual rite in preparation for lambing season.

Several hundred people showed up for the demonstration and to help the Fosters celebrate their recent sale of conservation rights that forever protects the 128-acre farm from commercial and residential development.

“It’s a dream not to see it developed,” said Carole Foster, who owns the farm with her husband, Tom. “It’s wonderful to see it kept in agriculture.”

Sheep are sheared every year at this time, shortly before lambs are born, for the health of the animals. Each sheep produces about eight to 10 pounds of wool.

The Saratoga County farm was previously a small 45-head dairy and Carole likewise grew up on a dairy farm in neighboring Washington County, which has since converted to beef production. About 15 years ago, the Fosters sold their milk cows, too.

“We kept heifers for a couple of years and when we sold them we really missed having animals,” Carole said.

Their children, Abby and Greg, were in 4-H and needed a project, so Tom bought a couple of Dorset sheep as show animals. He had also taken a course in sheep management at Cornell.

“It just grew from there,” Carole said.

Before long, they had 160 ewes and the herd had a dual purpose, meat production and wool. About seven years ago, however, she decided to put more emphasis on wool and now operates a popular home-based yarn shop. In addition to busy retail sales, she hosts an active spinning group with 15 to 20 people that meets every month.

The move allows her to stay at home more instead of going to farmers markets to sell meat products.

“I still sell a lot of lamb for meat, but it’s mostly word-of-mouth,” Carole said. “Some people will buy a lamb and raise it themselves, to get ready for the freezer in fall.”

So the flock is now one-third the size it was at its peak.

“I’ve found a balance,” Carole said. “It’s a good number for the barn. We tore out all the dairy stanchions and built bunks for the sheep to keep hay off their fleece. The barn was easy to convert. It was a big open space. Before, we used to drive a wagon through to feed the cows silage. Now we still drive through, but we’re feeding the sheep hay.”

Does she miss the cows?

“I don’t miss having to milk them twice a day,” Carole said.

However, sheep do have to be moved from pasture to pasture, which she does with the assistance of a trusted border collie named Meg.

“She helps, but a grain bucket works just as well,” Carole said, smiling.

One of the biggest concerns is predators, such as coyotes and stray dogs. A single strand of electrical wire won’t keep them out. For protection, the Fosters rely heavily on a fearless llama, named Leopold, who guards the sheep.

“A llama will bond with the sheep,” Carole explained.

About half the flock is Romneys. When she was 9 years old, Abby won a starter flock of three sheep by winning a Romney Association essay contest.

The rest of the flock is mostly Wensleydales, including a ram. This variety’s fleece is more desirable because of its long, silky lustrous texture, Carole said.

She sends some wool to a commercial firm that spins it into raw yarn. Then she gets it back and dyes it at home. Her neatly stocked shelves have every color under the rainbow, and then some.

Her shop also carries several lines of commercial yarn that she buys wholesale.

Other wool — roving — is also sent to a spinnery where it’s washed and carded, but not spun, a task that some fiber enthusiasts prefer to do on their own.

“There’s an upswing nationwide in knitting and fiber arts,” Carole said.

During the open house, each fleece was skirted, which involves evaluating the fleece to decide how it should be used. Also, local fiber artists demonstrated how raw wool is spun into finished products.

It was not only a fun event, but kids and adults alike learned a great deal and gained a better understanding about the farm’s importance to this rich agricultural belt along the Upper Hudson River.

The conservation rights sale was done in cooperation with Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land and Nature). The Fosters will continue to own, manage and pay taxes on the land. PLAN will be responsible for ensuring that the agreement is upheld over time, regardless of who owns it in the future or what crops are grown there. The agreement permits farming, logging and recreational pursuits, but prevents additional residential or commercial development on the fields or in the woods.

Funding for the project was provided by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Saratoga County and private contributions. An additional grant is being sought from the New York State Conservation Partnership Program to cover some of the transactional costs that Saratoga PLAN incurred. The total cost for the conservation project was $367,000.

This was the first time that a farm in Saratoga County had ever been awarded funding from the USDA’s highly competitive Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which provided $154,000.

Saratoga County’s Farmland and Open Space Program matched federal dollars with a grant of $169,157. Also, local fiber artisans conducted a “Three Bags Full Campaign” that appealed to other craftspeople and farm neighbors. The campaign included an art exhibit and fiber boutique in nearby Saratoga Springs.

Local 4-H Sheep and Kids’ Clubs even joined the fundraising effort.

“I’ve worked hard on this land all my life, with Carole’s help for most of it, and my parents did the same,” Tom Foster said. “I know that my children will carry on, as will the farmers who succeed them.

“Conserving my land means looking beyond my lifetime, both backward and forward to honor those who came before and will follow,” he said. “As I gaze over our flock grazing on nutritious pasture, it gives me a sense of great fulfillment to have completed this project.”

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