Horizon From Sheep to Shelf Part Two: Shearing Day

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It takes something very special to compel Kristine and a crew of volunteers to get up at 6:30am on a Saturday and drive for 90 miles. Something like shearing day at Sally Fox’s farm.

They braved navigation snafus, limited caffeine options, and urban drivers who are already on edge, to get out of Oakland and into the Capay Valley. The city gives way to suburban sprawl, and finally to cows, barns and wild turkeys. We blow past the dusty little turn-off, giggle as we jolt to a stop, and lurch backwards to turn down a narrow dirt road. By the time we arrive at the farm, everyone is breathing a little deeper, and feeling a little sweeter. The rolling hills, and the crisp morning air are infecting us with their vigor. It’s still chilly enough to wear my hat and cowl made from Horizon. They’re soft and sweet-smelling, and now I’m seeing first-hand what’s gone into this exceptional yarn. This is where Horizon was born: in clean air, from happy animals and hard-working people who love what they do.

In addition to Kristine and the volunteers, there is a small group from Spindles and Flyers. Also working is Marcela, Sally’s bright and helpful farm kid, Cara, a UC Davis student who helps Sally in her free time, and the hardest worker of all, Matt Gilbert, sheep-shearer extraordinaire. 

Snapping photos of the entire operation is Mimi Giboin, a photographer Kristine found to help us tell the story of Horizon. Mimi wows us all with her artistic eye and professionalism, and becomes part of the scenery, catching sheep and people at their unassuming best. Mimi's photos are coming soon! (These photos we took.) We have big plans for these photos. So stay tuned!

And swirling around all of us, with boundless cheer and energy, is Sally Fox. Sally oversees and helps with every step of the process. Periodically she checks in with each of us, urging us to hydrate and rest at her great outdoor table. “This is hard work!” She pleads, “You need lots of water. And a hat.”

the sheep know something's up

Organically and without much discussion, everyone arranges themselves into an impromptu assembly line. Ewes and lambs are anxiously corralled together, their only exit a narrow little corridor. The ewes are funneled to a holding pen, three or four at a time, where they wait to be shorn. The lambs we release into pasture. Every six or seven minutes, Matt swings open the door to the pen. He grabs an ewe, drags her with great strength and compassion onto his plywood platform, and unsentimentally shears. First belly, legs, face, and anything that can’t be milled. Then her back and flanks are shorn. The sheep squirm, and although Matt restrains them firmly, they emerge completely unhurt, without so much as a nick from the shearer. Once shorn, the ewe scrambles to her feet. Usually she takes a joyful leap into the air as she runs into the pasture-- much slimmer, cooler and more mobile than before-- to find her lamb.

Matt takes a moment to breathe, as the fleece is cleared away and the platform is swept. Again he swings open the door, and again, every six or seven minutes, until some 90 ewes are shorn. When finally done, sunstruck and exhausted at 8pm, Matt was still shearing.

Matt picks his next victim

Opposite the shearing platform, a half-dozen of us are skirting each fleece, picking off the sections too dirty or matted to be milled, before rolling it up and sorting it by color. Everyone helps with skirting. The fleeces range in quality, from terrifically nice, to breathtaking. The skirters chat with each other as they work, and when an exceptionally lovely fleece is dropped on the screen, a hushed reverence falls over the group. Everyone takes a moment to grab a morsel of wool between their fingers. Some of the fleeces are so tightly crimped, so soft and greasy that they leave us speechless.

Sally helps with skirting a fleece

Since she started shepherding in 2000, Sally’s been making her own rules, working non-stop to raise the happiest, healthiest merino sheep she possibly can. She’s committed to organic, and biodynamic farming, but her guiding principle is “what works for the sheep.”

“I watch them, I study them. I try to do what works naturally with their habits.”

All that careful observation is paying off, and it’s evident in the exquisite fiber laid before us on the skirting table.

After lunch, Sally shows her cotton fields, and we sat in the shade watching the newly shorn of the flock graze with their lambs. Down the hill, past the sheep, the cotton was just sprouting. Next to the cotton was a field of heirloom Sonora wheat, which Sally uses to make her own flour. Her yield is tiny compared to conventional wheat farms, and much smaller than even organic wheat farms, “Big organics are yielding around 2000 lbs per acre, and I get maybe 700 lbs, but I think there’s such a difference in taste, and nutrition. And the husks, the stalks, all that wonderful plant matter is fed to the sheep, cycling back into the soil,” she said happily.

Sally resolved to start raising sheep in order to make her crops more sustainable. Cotton is a miracle plant, and Sally’s made it even more miraculous by breeding long-staple, pest-resistant strains in a variety of colors. But cotton, like any crop, depletes the soil without giving back, and Sally has to rotate her cotton crops with black-eyed peas to keep the soil healthy. Sheep, through their humble task of eating and eliminating, recycle nutrients back into the earth.

Sally’s career as a shepherd hasn’t been easy. She started her flock when another farm was forced to auction their sheep off. She intended to start with six merino sheep, “so I could learn to care for them,” but when she arrived to pick up the animals, the heartbroken farmers had set aside about 30 of their favorite members of the flock. Sally took them all, and just a couple days later, they lambed. She admits that the first year of shepherding was a difficult one, but the experiment has paid off. The sheep have been instrumental in bringing Sally’s farm towards being truly biodynamic. “Biodynamic” is becoming a buzzword in the organic farming world, and there’s much debate and discussion about what it is. I asked Sally what biodynamic means to her.

“It means the farm is self-sustaining, what it produces goes back into the soil. Truly biodynamic farming builds the soil, and considers its growth and health, as well as what it produces. I'm always trying to improve the life and vitality of the soil.

"We’re not totally there yet, I still have to buy organic hay [which is sourced from a farm in the nearby Sacramento Valley]. And, some things that other biodynamic farmers are doing, I won’t do if it doesn’t seem to work for the animals.” She explained, as an example, that some biodynamic farmers keep their animals enclosed in a small space at night, collecting all their waste in one spot for easy gathering and faster composting, “But, the sheep want to spread out. Look at them!” she motioned to the little constellation of grazers before us, “They arrange themselves in a certain way. Mothers and lambs, and grandmothers like to be close together. Some groups don’t like each other, and they just want to be separated. So I let them do what they do naturally, as much as I can, and, when I look at this exquisite fleece we’re shearing today, I think listening to the animals, giving them what they want, pays off.” I agreed that her approach was working.

Sally continued, “I love them. They don’t love me back but that’s okay. I truly believe these animals have changed the land, and made it into something very special.”

at Sally's table

It seems like so much work for one woman, for a modest harvest of wheat, cotton and wool. But for Sally, the rewards are unquestionable.

“I’m so weary of the attitude of trying to get the most yield out of every acre. Instead, I want the most flavor, the most nourishment, the best out of every acre.” This principle applies to everything the farm produces, animal and vegetable, and everything the farm consumes.

“Sure, there’s not a lot of it,” admits Sally, “but everything is better, tastier, healthier, nicer,” On Sally’s farm, humans, animals and plants work together, and each becomes more robust. Work, however hard, is carried out with great joy, since the fruits of one’s labor are so evident. Horizon, and the California Wool Project, wouldn’t be possible without Sally Fox. Her farm needs the support of businesses like Verb, and communities of makers, to survive.

I left shearing day with the feeling that we’d all participated in something meaningful, working together to create a very different and better world. A world with less stuff, but more wealth. Where materials like Horizon become the cherished items of clothing we make, mend and wear for years to come. Where human and animal livelihoods are tasted and felt in everything we eat and wear. -HD

Anyone who wants to see/touch/buy Horizon for themselves is cordially invited to our Horizon Release Party, tomorrow (May 1st, 2013), from 11-7 in the store. We hope you'll stop by!