|Dedication to Wool a Success for New England Couple
By BECKY TALLEY
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(January 1, 2008) The saying goes, when life hands you lemons make lemonade. Well, when life hands you an interest in knitting, an appreciation for history and ungrazed pasture land, what do you make – Greenwood Hill Farm Merinos and Yarn, a lucrative business that showcases the success of small-flock producers in the New England area.
Greenwood Hill Farm Merinos and Yarn, has been owned and operated by Tom and Andrea Colyer for 22 years. The Colyers raise, show and sell wool and meat from a flock of carefully selected and bred white and black Merino sheep out of their home in Hubbardston, Mass.
Their fine-wool flock is a great example of the type of sheep production that takes place on the East Coast; farm flocks, focused on providing a product to a niche customer base.
“We represent that eastern producer,” Tom says.
The Colyers, neither of whom have a background in raising sheep, came to start their business in the way many farm flock owners have – necessity and kids.
In 1985, the family purchased their 32-acre farm in Massachusetts, which included a house built in 1836. After joining a historical society and learning about the background of their area, the Colyers took an interest in keeping their property as it would have been in 1836.
As fate would have it, they also took an early interest in prescribed grazing, as they realized that they needed something to help control the vegetation in their pastures. Their daughter, Jennifer, wanted to raise and show sheep, and the animal became a natural choice to solve both issues.
In keeping with the tradition of their farm, they bought a Merino ram and ewe. From her work at a living history museum, Old Sturbridge Village, nearby, Andrea had learned that Merinos were the most common breed in the area in the 1830s. She also had learned to spin and weave wool and began using the wool from their animals to make her own yarn.
And thus began the family’s journey into the U.S. sheep industry.
Tom and Jennifer showed their animals, and Andrea used the wool to make yarn, but eventually they made a fairly unprecedented move in the show world – they chose to forgo the blue ribbons for best in breed and chose to chase after blue ribbons for best fleece.
“Our mandate became to always be in there (the show) for best fleece,” Tom says.
This decision came after Andrea realized that often the animals that were winning at the show were not the ones with the best fleece. And, as lucrative as her yarn business was, it made more sense to focus on the quality of the wool and use that to build a customer base.
“Out here we pay taxes on every blade of grass the sheep eat. We have to find niche markets to put out product into a customer base that will pay the price.”
Today, the Colyers’ customer base is those that buy their merino wool fleeces and those that buy the all-natural yarn that Andrea produces from their sheep.
The Colyers’ white merinos average from 18- to 20-micron fleeces, and the black merinos average 21- to 22-micron fleeces. The last shearing produced around 500 pounds of wool, with the ewe fleece weights averaging about 10 pounds skirted, and the ram’s fleeces averaging 12 to 15 pounds.
Tom says that a reason his flock has such fine fleeces is nutrition. Protein levels in the diet can have a profound effect on the micron diameter in a fleece, so Tom says he feeds a ration consisting of 16-percent protein and not much corn, as it can yellow the wool.
“I’m very particular,” Tom says. “I don’t feed my sheep to be big in the show ring; I feed for the best fleece.”
As the couple raises their animals as organically as possible (though they are not certified organic mainly because of the cost of organic feed), they have found a spinnery, Green Mountain Spinnery of Putney, Vt., that focuses on organic scouring and processing, giving the Colyers an all-natural product from start to finish. This has opened up a larger arena for their yarns.
Andrea, who is sensitive to dyes and chemicals herself, realized quickly that the demand for all-natural fiber was high, and that those that demanded it were willing to pay the premium. Today, she sells eight different yarns that range from natural ivory color to darker brown. She sells these yarns online and at several major festivals and trade shows on the eastern seaboard.
“These yarns are great for sticking with a more classic style of sweater – a sweater that will last you 20 years and you could have worn 20 years ago,” she says.
Because of the quality and all-natural style, there is high demand for her yarns, and on occasion, Andrea will buy wool from local producers to keep up with the supply needs. She does stress that though she does occasionally buy other wool, it is important to her to make sure that she buys strictly from American sheep producers.
“It is important to support our own wool industry. I would rather go out of business than go offshore,” she explains.
In addition to their own business, the Colyers have been leaders for the entire industry through their work with the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) and the Make it With Wool (MIWW) contest.
Tom, as a small farm flock producer in the East, initially felt that ASI did not understand his needs as a producer. However, as he came to know more about the organization and the American Wool Council (AWC), he realized that it was not a matter of not understanding needs of the eastern producers but rather not knowing how to fulfill those needs. He was asked to join the AWC and is now serving as vice chair, where he is able to give a voice for small farm flock producers and represent the industry.
Andrea is currently the New England director for MIWW. She initially volunteered to work with the Massachusetts program but ended up taking over the program in all the New England states. She and Tom have worked tirelessly to promote the program in their six-state region, and have been successful as all of the states are now aware of MIWW and have shown to have interested contestants.
“Ultimately, what we are trying to do is to establish funding for all states,” Tom says.
The couple is also active in their state wool growers association, as well as in other agriculture-oriented organizations in their area.
Today, the Colyers continue to go strong with their flock and business, and their grandkids are now the next generation to show Merino sheep, continuing the family tradition. According to the couple, they do not see themselves slowing down anytime soon.
“We’ll do it as long as we are still having fun,” Tom relates.
For more information on the Greenwood Hill Farm and the yarn products that the Colyers offer, please visit their Web site at www.greenwoodhillfarm.com.