Can reading a book really change your direction in life? Just ask vivaciously-spirited Susan Gibbs, a former producer for CBS news who on a whim picked up a beginner’s guide to raising sheep and found her true calling by the time she turned the final page. A year later, Susan had exchanged her corporate attire for a pair of jeans and rubber boots to go along with her brand new job title- shepherd, a proud profession dating back well over six thousand years. From her modest beginnings, and first flock of five sheep, she has grown her passion into a successful CSA (community supported agriculture) business, Juniper Moon Farm which allows members to take part in the entire rural experience from naming the lambs to harvesting the fleece through pre-purchased shares. Along with the day-to day running of the farm, Susan has launched her own commercial line of natural fibre yarns, from lace to chunky weight in exquisitely alluring hues with eco-friendly dyes, all creatively blended down on the farm.
Diamond Yarn introduces the exclusive line up of wools from Juniper Moon Farm to Canadian knitters this fall, complimented by a full selection of pattern booklets featuring pullovers, cardigans, vests, shawls, and fashionable accessories.
Let’s chat with Susan Gibbs of Juniper Moon Farm and find out more about her switch from city to country life-
MM: Hi Susan, and a warm welcome to Canada where your yarns are selling like hotcakes. Before we chat about your farm and the beautiful wools that you produce, would you like a cup of tea or coffee?
SG: Green tea please! I’m trying to kick a hardcore diet soda habit and green tea is the only thing that keeps me sane and awake.
MM: I understand that your background is in news media, so what inspired you to pull on your ‘wellies’ and become a shepherd?
SG: Working in news was incredibly rewarding for a long time, but after ten years I was completely burned out. Additionally, my work left me feeling unfulfilled at the end of the day. I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life and to have something to show for my work at the end of the day. While on vacation I sort of stumbled across a book about raising sheep and instantly I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
MM: Where is Juniper Moon Farm located and does it operate similar to a co-op?
SG: Juniper Moon Farm is in Central Virginia, just outside Charlottesville. Our flock is run as a CSA, meaning that our customers purchase a share of the wool clip while it’s still growing on the animals. It allows the shareholders to participate in the lives of the animals who grow their yarn, to get to know the personalities of the flock and to learn about all the hard work that goes into raising sheep for wool.
MM: Can you estimate how many goats and sheep are in residence on the farm?
SG: Currently we are down to about 70 sheep and goats.
MM: What breeds are you raising at the moment and is there one breed that you would say has been easier to raise or that you personally prefer?
SG: We primarily raise Cormo sheep, but we have a few other breeds as well. Cormos fleece is super-fine and has lovely crimp- personally, I don’t think there is a finer fleece on any breed of sheep. Cormos are not, however, easy keepers. We have a handful of Southdowns as well and they are sturdy, healthy little tanks, but their fleeces are not so great. We have actually experimented with cross breeding the two– we call the new breed Mo’Downs. In addition to the Cormo flock, we have a flock of colored sheep.
MM: Do you raise other animals too?
SG: OMG… yes! We have a million chickens, pigs, goats and lots of dogs.
MM: Can you give us a timeline as to how often the sheep shearing occurs, and the journey that the fibre takes before it reaches our knitting needles?
SG: We shear our Cormo flock once a year and the colored flock twice a year. The yarn is sent to a mill in Canada where it takes about four months for it to be scoured, carded and spun into yarn. When the yarn returns to the farm, it is dyed and sent out to our shareholders.
MM: All of your yarn qualities look luxurious and as tempting as a tray full of sweets, you must have a difficult time choosing which one to knit with first?
SG: True confession time! Just as the shoe maker’s children has no shoes, the yarn maker has no time to knit. Honestly, it has been about a year since I sat down to knit. Which doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time admiring yarn. And I have a house full of sweaters because all the samples we have knit for our collection usually end up in my wardrobe.
MM: What three things have you learned in your life on the farm that would inspire someone else to follow your lead from the corporate world to the country?
SG: Number One- Chickens don’t just crow in the morning, it’s an all day thing……. and you do get used to it. Number Two- Watching a lamb be born and get on to it’s feet is the closest thing to magic that I’ve ever seen. Number Three- There is no better feeling than falling asleep at the end of the day after a long day of working sheep.