At Little Song Farm in Montague, healthy pastures yield warm harvest

  • One of the fine specimens in Ryan Richards’ herd of about 20 Icelandi sheep at Little Song Farm. Little Song Farm

  • Ryan Richards checks in on one of his Icelandic sheep at Little Song Farm in Montague. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Little Song Farm

  • Little Song Farm—

For the Recorder
Published: 1/16/2020 11:56:23 AM
Modified: 1/16/2020 11:55:31 AM

When cold snow blankets the Pioneer Valley, locally produced fiber can keep you warm during these wintry weeks.

“Wool has innate properties for shedding water because of the structure of the fiber,” Suzanne Webber explained during a recent conversation. “So wool stays warm even when it’s wet.” Webber and Al Miller raised sheep at Brook’s Bend in Montague for years. Now that the pair has stepped back from farming, they have welcomed Ryan Richards and Little Song Farm onto their land.

Since moving his farm from Amherst to Brook’s Bend last year, Richards has taken over the flock and made it his own. Right now, he has about 20 Icelandic sheep. But he plans to grow the herd until it approaches the land’s capacity.

“A lot of why I love raising sheep is because it’s so connected to the landscape and to the grass and the pastures,” Richards said. “They’re an incredible way to manage a large chunk of land.”

The relationship between the sheep and the land goes both ways. The sheep keep the grass in check and the health of the pasture impacts the fiber bounty at the end of the year.

“If you’re driving in the summer and it’s all this green pasture and everything’s growing really well, then you can think of the really nice wool you’re going to get in the fall,” Richards said. Healthy pastures mean healthy sheep. “Then how healthy they are really contributes to the quality of their wool.”

Wool is just one aspect of his farming. Richards also sells fresh chicken and lamb, offering lamb shares in the fall available via email to also produces log-grown shiitake mushrooms.

Most farmers shear their sheep once a year, in the spring. But Icelandic sheep have a different cycle of wool growth than other breeds. So, Richards does his main clip in the fall and a clean-up shear in the spring.

He reported that the farm’s clip last October came out great. Despite overly dry conditions through July and August, the pasture at Brook’s Bend fared well this summer, which kept the sheep in good condition. Fortunately, the dry weather stretched into the fall.

“A drier fall is good for shearing sheep,” Webber said. “For finer wool breeds like we have, being wet can ‘felt’ the wool.”

Most shearers use electric shears, a heavy-duty version of beard trimmers. But Richards brought in Charlemont native Kevin Ford, who uses hand shears, for this year’s clip.

“Kevin’s been doing it for a long time,” Richards said. “It’s just amazing being with him and seeing how calm he gets the sheep and how he works with the blades. It’s a really ancient method that he’s a master at. So just getting to be with him is such a gift.”

During the shearing, Richards set up a table to clean the wool in a process called skirting. He picked out the stray bits of grass, hay and manure. Then he loaded the fleece into bales for storage. Eventually, he will send off the bales to a mill, where they will be processed into yarn.

Richards bred his ewes at the end of October. Their lambs will be born between the end of March and the end of April, on the doorstep of the grass coming in the spring. Then the process will begin again; lambs turn the nutrients in the grass into wool, which we make into yarn.

So, when you pick up a locally produced wool blanket for an extra layer this winter, remember: A taste of lush summer pasture is keeping you warm.

Noah Baustin is the communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).


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