Early in the morning of Sunday February 27, a special delivery arrived at Ruxville Farm in West Chesterfield County.
In fact, it was two special arrivals. Twin lambs were born at the farm, the same day farm co-owner Kim Harrison, a sheep and horse farmer, hosted an open house for the community to come and see her farm and home wool business .
The two lambs, each brown with a tuft of shiny white hair on their heads and white-tipped tails, were the hits of the event, which drew visitors from across the Richmond area.
The lambs huddled in a corner of a barn under the careful watch of their mother, a ewe named Skunk who took her name from a generation of farm-born sheep that Harrison and his family named after animals woods such as Possum and Squirrel.
“We found them around 5:30 a.m.,” Harrison said of the lambs. “I was so happy.”
“They are lambs,” or females, she said. “It’s really good for us.”
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Ewes are valued because they perpetuate the flock over several generations.
“We can keep them, reproduce them,” Harrison said.
Even better for a sheep farmer who values wool above all else, both lambs were born with the recessive genetic trait of having a moorit color, a reddish-brown color that the breed derives from Castlemilk Estate of Scotland, on which they were brought up. The rich tan color makes it one of the best yarns to weave into fabric for items such as jackets, hats, coats and scarves.
“They will make the precious wool,” Harrison said. “That family line is just a lot of good sheep that we’ve had for generations.”
Harrison estimates around 400 lambs have been born on the family farm in the 25 years since she and her husband, Lee, moved onto the property. Currently, she has a flock of around 40 sheep on the 25-acre farm off Highway 360 in an area of West Chesterfield known as Skinquarter, after the Native Americans who hunted and butchered deer there.
On what was once a large pig farm, Harrison now raises Merino sheep, a breed that originated in Spain hundreds of years ago. The breed has developed a long and storied history of producing wool considered ideal for clothing and blankets.
“They are well known and bred for their fine wool,” Harrison said. “Fine means it is very soft.
“There are other breeds of sheep that give better wool for something like carpet making,” she said. “People may think wool is itchy, but merino is the softest there is, and it can be used against your skin.”
Harrison, who has a degree in animal science from Virginia Tech, she began herding sheep in 1987. She learned to use an old-fashioned loom to weave fabric from yarn to make mittens, hats, coats and blankets.
“My husband was a college student and we lived in upstate New York where it was really, really cold,” she said. “You’re stuck in the house during the winter, which is terrible, so I took a weaving class. It cost me $50.
“My father offered to buy me a loom, so I bought a loom, and then during the dark winter days when I couldn’t go out and do anything else, I woven,” she said. “It has become a business for me.”
Harrison’s daughter, Lydia Harrison, who is also a graduate of Virginia Tech, works as an assistant herd manager at a Richlands dairy farm in Blackstone, but she also works on the family farm in her spare time. Sheep are shorn for their wool in late fall, usually around Thanksgiving.
Harrison hires professional shearers to do this job.
“As a wool producer, I want a shearer who understands that these fleeces are my product,” she said. “They are precious to me. A shearer can ruin a fleece by doing a bad job.
Harrison sends the wool to a Wisconsin mill to be spun. It takes several weeks to retrieve the thread, then she goes to work on her loom to weave the thread into fabric.
It’s not easy to find mills that can turn wool into yarn, Harrison said, explaining his limited options.
“Merino wool is difficult to process,” she said. “Sometimes I give someone a test batch and they don’t do a good job. Most of them are honest, and they look at my wool and say, ‘We would have a hard time processing this wool.’ »
It’s a profitable business, Harrison said, but not massively profitable. Harrison works part-time on another farm, and her husband still works as an engineer.
“It’s profitable, but do I live with this money? No,” Harrison said. “I only have 25 sheep. Think how much money each sheep would have to produce to live on. However, I earn enough money to make improvements to the property. I have enough money to buy new rams when I need them, and I have enough money to put into my retirement account.
Harrison sells lambs to other ranchers. Sheep can also be eaten, but Harrison said the wool is what’s important to them. She said she got about 41 pounds of black wool from the herd last year, as well as 78 pounds of white wool and 37 pounds of moorit wool.
The wool’s softness can be determined by a “comfort test” performed on samples it sends to a Texas lab affiliated with Texas A&M University.
“When they send the analysis back to me, every fleece is analyzed,” she said. “They measure the diameter of the fiber, which is measured in microns. Our fleeces measure between 20 and 22 microns, which is a good sweet spot. The comfort factor is the percentage of fibers that are below a certain diameter, so they don’t itch the skin.