A Share in the Shear

Photograph: Greg Auger

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.


  1. Nice. If grazing ruminants were used in more places in urban parkland or roadside buffer zones, etc. we could eliminate the use of thousands of pounds of pesticides annually, and that is in reality eliminating poisoning ourselves and our children in those instances. Every little bit helps.

  2. Inspiring. Wishing Susan well

    And I agree with Nori’s comment – I think that farming and grazing inside our urban areas will be a central part of the way forward.

  3. This is a completely misleading article that is not very accurate. You do a great disservice to the cause of sustainable agriculture by painting such a unrealistic and distorted picture of farming. First of all, she is hardly ” one of New England’s most successful sheep-and-goat farmers” Not even close. Figure it out: she has 60 animals, avg. net yield of wool of 6 lbs each, at her avg. retail price of $75/lb. is a gross income of $27,000, and that is before the costs of feed, vets, carding, spinning, packaging, marketing and retailing, much less the cost of breeding stock, gas and equipment, such as her truck, shovels, and barn. And this is best case – not all of her animals yield wool – lambs, etc. She is not even making minimum wage. Free grazing hardly makes a huge difference. Its a nice hobby for a NYC executive who wants a new lifestyle selling ultra premium wool to knitters but is not a realistic model for any kind of sustainable agriculture. It is a major task for us to reform our agricultural system so that it is more sustainable. Lets not trivialize the effort by putting forth these fantasy examples that that have no aspect of reality or viability.

  4. David makes a good point, let’s not make this story into a fairy tale.

    But I don’t think that enough of the facts are in for such a cut and dried assessment.

    For example, I am not sure that “her avg. retail price of $75/lb” is either a real, or the relevant measure. It sounds like sales are by the “skein” which I take to be an inexact measure. Also the CSA aspect makes it hard to asses the business model from afar.

    It sounds to me like Susan may have found a niche for herself. It is OK for a start up to run at a loss as it ramps up and it is definitely ok for a “NYC executive” to invest in her own start up business – her losses after all might have been much worse in the stock market.

    Also, it sounds to me that she is walking the walk much more than if this were a hobby.

    Can she make a real living from this? I don’t think it is out of the question.

    Could someone inspired by her story raise sheep in the Bronx and sell skeins of high end wool in the Union Square Market? Perhaps.

    Is there other, hard nosed, sustainable agriculture work which MUST be done? Absolutely.

  5. I came across a quote some years ago, and unfortunately, can’t remember who it originated with, but it was this: “Never discourage progress, no matter how small.” Why attack someone who’s doing something positive, just because it might not make her a millionaire, or just because it doesn’t fit some preconceived idea of a successful business? Perhaps if we all had some small thing we could do that at least put us back in contact with the earth itself in some way, we’d at least feel better about things in general and ourselves in particular, and something good could actually happen. So, maybe there’s an air of contemporary mythology here, but it doesn’t merit attack or complete dismissal. It is what it is, and apparently, Susan is happy doing it. That’s got to count for something.

  6. David, I’m a stickler for details the article reads “more than sixty” and how do you know Susan is not acquiring/raising the herd to larger numbers. You can run quite a few head on 300 acres.

    Sustainable farms are not beginning farms.It is the same with any business, it is rare for any business to make a profit in the first five years let alone the first year.

  7. Thanks so much for the encouraging comments. David, I agree with you. If your assumptions were correct my farm would be a “fantasy” example. But you’re off on several points.

    Our animals- the breeds and the individuals- shear much higher than you’ve estimated. Our flock is growing all the time (we have upwards of 80 animals now; more half of those are bred females). Angora goats are shorn twice a year and their kids are shorn at six-month-old.

    But most importantly you’ve assumed that I am trying to run a farm on a single income stream. In addition to our CSA, we retail our yarn at farmer’s markets in an affluent vacation area. Your estimated retail price per pound was extremely low. I buy high-quality fleeces from other farms at a fair price to supplement our own fiber.

    We sell yarn online, introducing new colors every 8-10 weeks. This creates a constant cash flow.

    We also developed our brand and logo with an eye towards merchandise sales. T-shirts and tote bags are sold online and at several Island shops.

    We started a daily blog so that my shareholders can keep up with the animals. As the blogs popularity grew I was able to sell ad space.

    Our agritourism component is called Shepherding Camp. Visitors can pay to come and stay on our farm for a week or a weekend.

    We started the Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Fest. In it’s first year the festival drew knitters and spinners from as far away as California and Texas.

    The fantasy, David, is that any farm can be sustainable selling a single product and without doing as much marketing as farming.

  8. I can relate to Susan Gibbs. I am an organic farmer with a Type A personality. I’m not sure which development came first: my desire to farm or my personality type. There’s always something to do on my idle-not farm. Generating creative ways to manage a shared landscape is a hand-shake deal if you incorporate local communities. Keep up the good work!

  9. Well, I guess it all depends on how you define success. Susan is quite happy — and feels she has an exciting future. That’s a lot more than the Wall Street types right now. I bet all those Madoff investors aren’t looking forward to a bright future.
    For Susan, however, the sky’s the limit — because she based her life on something other than money.

  10. I am an RN/JD working as a nationally recognized trial consultant in San Clemente, CA. I have been considering what next for some time now. And last Friday night I had dinner to talk about my plans with a very successful local organic farmer. He did not laugh @ my idea of a farm with sheep & goats & bees. And last night when I opened my issue of ORION, there was Susan Gibbs’ story. So, I said, “Yes I can & yes I will.” Til next our paths cross, every good wish to you, Susan

  11. Let’s face it, jobs are not fantasies and articles like this make it seem as if the path to free, environmentally friendly farming is clear and easy. That being said, I would LOVE to see goats and sheep clearing brush in NY parks. And so would my dog.

  12. Several years ago, I traveled from Atlanta to the northern part of North Carolina. Along the route, I was dismayed to see all the kudzu choking the native plants and trees (and even growing over abandoned farm equipment). Subsequently, I learned that a lot of the border states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia suffer with tbe effects of kudzu.
    I’m wondering if anyone has considered using goats and sheep (especially goats since they seem to eat anything!) to rid the area of kudzu? It certainly would be easier that trying to dig up the individual plants (which is the current solution, to my knowledge) rather than merely cutting off the branches.

  13. I pity these lambs. But we can’t do anything to stop people from “harvesting” its fur: what we can do is just to be a better watchdog for any maltreatment.

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