At a recent farmers’ market, a woman came to look at Susan Gibbs’s skeins of dyed wool laid out for sale.
“Isn’t that nice,” Gibbs remembers the woman saying. “The farmer’s wife, selling the yarn.”
Gibbs’s reply came quickly. “I’m not the farmer’s wife,” she snapped. “I’m the farmer.”
If you’d known Gibbs several years ago, you wouldn’t have liked her. That’s her opinion, anyway. She carried a clipboard. She was competitive. She was compulsive. To hear her tell it, she was totally Type A. For ten years, she loved her New York City job as a news producer for CBS, every minute of it. Until she woke up one day and realized she hated it. In 2001, she quit her job, told her colleagues she was going to “write a book,” and began a diffi-cult two-year fallow period. Doing nothing wasn’t easy. Sometimes she just didn’t get out of bed in the morning. Then, one day, she wandered into a bookstore and picked up a how-to book about raising sheep. This child of American suburbia, who loves pedicures and religiously has her roots done every six weeks, decided to become a shepherdess. She had no livestock experience and owned none of the necessary equipment. And there was one other problem: she owned no land.
Today, Gibbs, thirty-eight, is owner of Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm and one of New England’s most successful sheep-and-goat farmers. Her large flock includes more than sixty Cotswold, Babydoll Southdown, and Cormo sheep and the most adorable Angora goats. She pastures the animals for free on Martha’s Vineyard, where she lives year-round. Her farmhouse is her townhouse. Her yarn-dyeing factory is her tiny basement. And her business venture is based on a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. Though CSAs have been a part of other types of farming for years, Gibbs’s may be the first one in the yarn business. She has made her endeavor a success because she sells “shares” in her product — stunningly gorgeous skeins of high-end yarn.
It works this way: Gibbs shears her flock twice a year. Her investors — many a part of today’s knitting craze, a new, hip generation of twenty-first-century knitters — buy shares of a shearing for $125 each and wait to see what their returns will be. If they’re lucky, they may each get ten skeins from their investment, which would be a really good deal, since Gibbs’s yarn generally sells in the $24 to $45 range. On the other hand, if disaster hits, the investors may receive nothing for that shearing.
Most interesting in Gibbs’s story is how she got the “free” land. She moved to Martha’s Vineyard because her fiancé got a job there, working in the affordable housing field. At the time, she owned only a few animals and didn’t know how she would pasture them on an island where only the richest people can afford to buy a house, let alone pasture. But it turned out that organizations on the island had for decades been buying up farmland to keep as open space. The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank had acres upon acres of fields that were growing over. Gibbs offered her flock as one way to keep brush from overwhelming one five-acre field. The deal was clinched when both parties agreed on a fee of twenty-two dollars a year.
That worked so well that she began talking to Suzan Bellicampi about her problems at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, a three-hundred-acre Massachusetts Audubon property beside a saltwater pond. The land had gone unfarmed for decades, resulting in fields inundated with Oriental bittersweet, a vigorously growing vine that smothers native vegetation. The sanctuary’s bittersweet had begun to look like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. The open fields, which had once attracted grassland birds, were disappearing.
Time to bring on the sheep and goats — animals famous for mowing down everything in sight in a matter of hours. Bellicampi thought the sheep might be environmentally superior to using herbicides. After a summer of experimenting, she couldn’t be happier. And the price for the land — free — was exactly suitable to Gibbs, who loves the symbiosis. “Suzan sees invasive species she wants to get rid of,” Gibbs says. “I see enough food for my animals to eat for the rest of their lives.”
When Gibbs sums up her new world, several thoughts come to mind. Her television colleagues can’t believe she has chosen such a life. But she is happy. Farming suits her Type A personality perfectly: There is always something to do. A lamb may be ill. The goats need to be deloused. Shearing time may be just around the corner. And feeding time is inevitable. Every morning. Early. And again, every evening.