Pioneer From Sheep to Shelf Part One: A Conversation With Sally Fox
Posted by Kristine Vejar on April 25, 2013 2 Comments
In Pioneer’s journey from sheep to shelf, it all starts with Sally Fox. Sally's story is unique. Her farm is dedicated to the growth of raw materials for making textiles, and to growing them, both wool and cotton, organically.
Fascinating profiles of Fox already exist. Kristine touched on her background with cotton when she first introduced the California Wool Project. Fox’s website features an excerpt from David Brown's book, Inventing Modern America, telling the story of Fox's life and career as organic cotton farmer and breeder. This excellent piece on Fox, written by Karen Brown, also offers sobering statistics on the modern, conventional (non-organic) textile industry and its staggering environmental cost.
When I interviewed Sally, I wanted to focus on her work with the merino sheep that have supplied the fleece for our new yarn, Pioneer, and to gain a deeper understanding of organic wool. We’ve bombarded our dear readers with our genuine excitement over Pioneer in the last few weeks. You know it’s soft, it’s yummy, it’s from California sheep. But what does it mean that Pioneer is also organic?
Sally Fox became a shepherd in 2000. “I took the flock with the goal of going biodynamic, avoiding GMO’s, and saving them from slaughter. But as time has progressed they have become part of my life and my way of interacting with this farm in a very unique way.” Today Fox has over 100 adult sheep, scheduled for shearing this Saturday, and more than 30 lambs. A couple of her neighbors at Riverdog Farm help her with farm-work and machinery, but the bulk of the farm labor is done by Fox herself. The sheep are valued members of a team: people, animals and plants that cooperate to form the life-cycle of her farm: “Having the sheep allows me to circle nutrients from my own farm back to my own land. They are the digesters of the cellulose; they turn the trash and weeds and greens into future crops and soil.” When the sheep get too old to lamb or grow viable wool, Fox keeps them on the farm and cares for them into their old age. "I cannot send older ewes and rams to be made into dog food. I keep every sheep alive as comfortably as I can," she explains on her website.
Just as she did with growing cotton, Fox is re-inventing shepherding with a strict respect for humane treatment and environmental stewardship. “I have figured out ways to keep them healthy with only organic inputs. I have come up with systems that allow me to leave them with tails intact.” Many shepherds dock the tails of their sheep, believing it to be the easiest way to keep them free of flies. Fox has found, however, that with a little more work and care, she can keep her sheep clean and healthy without the use of this painful practice. “I still cannot and do not remove any tails. This requires that I have a shearer come and shear their rumps and tails in the winter so that they are not attacked and killed by flies.” For Fox, the added expense of winter tail-shearing is worth it, to spare her animals from pain or illness.
To run a truly organic farm affects every step of the process, from what the sheep eat to what medicinal treatments they receive. Says Fox, “Doing things organically costs more money, and most people cannot believe how much more each step adds.” Fox sources her hay organically, and she addresses challenges and adapts to her environment in the most environmentally-sensitive way possible. This year, she’s grappled with coyotes. When losses from the predators became too heavy to sustain, she added sheep dogs to the farm, puppies she’d rescued from a roadside.
“I kept the flock in, rescued a guardian dog (who chased coyotes all night long and slept all day), and when I let the sheep out to graze again, the predation went down to about three a month- an improvement. I got another dog and now losses are rare. Plus, I changed their habits. I went to keeping the flock in and feeding them hay in the mornings, and then letting them out to graze in the afternoons only. This past two weeks they are back to grazing all day, so far so good. But I make adjustments with the reality of the actual situation.”
Still, there’s no doubt in Sally Fox’s mind that the added work and expense of raising her sheep organically, and humanely, pays off. Fox has been committed to organic farming ever since she saw first-hand the devastating effects of pesticides, during her service in the Gambia as a Peace Corps volunteer. The Gambia had recently acquired copious quantities of DDT, “donated” by Western manufacturers in countries that had banned the chemical. DDT and other toxic chemicals arrived in the Gambia in "in unlabeled, leaking 55-gallon drums." Fox held classes to teach locals about safely using DDT, but left the Peace Corps early. The exposure to the harsh pesticides made her too ill to complete her service. Over the years, Fox has also shunned chemical dyes and other fiber processing agents, all of which make the conventional textile industry one of the most environmentally destructive on the planet.
Says Fox, “To call me an organic fanatic is an understatement.”
We’re hopeful that using Sally Fox’s merino wool for Pioneer will create more opportunities for her and her farm. When asked what she wants to do with the proceeds from the California Wool Project, she buzzed with ideas.
“I want to produce a yarn that is composed of my cotton and my wool. I want to reduce the flock to more wool sheep, and less ewes having lambs. I want to get the coats [to keep their wool clean] back on the sheep- especially the black ones. I want to figure out ways to rope off more pastures, and do the rotational grazing more intensely so that more topsoil is produced per year. I want to sequester more carbon and have super healthy soil, sheep and crops that are sustainable, financially as well as ecologically.”
Considering everything Sally Fox has already done to revolutionize organic textiles, there’s no doubt she can do all this and more, with community support. We’re proud to be part of the revolution. -HD
Next up: A visit to Sally's farm, with pictures...