“If I’m supporting them, maybe they can support themselves,” exclaims Jacqui and she isn’t talking about teenagers. She’s talking about her sheep. Jacqui runs Dumgoyne Farm, named after a hill near her childhood home in Scotland. She is one of thousands of small agriculture and art producers, the folks behind the colorful stalls at outdoor markets, displays in intriguing little shops and web sites chocked with visually delicious offerings.
Dumgoyne Farm features specialty fibers from “a menagerie”, including a herd of about 60 sheep. I don’t want to forget the llamas. (And I’ve learned that llamas have fiber, not wool.)
Jacqui’s comment about the sheep supporting themselves comes from the fact that many of her wards are rescue animals. She gave them a home so now their wool can help pay their room and board. And it does.
Small producers of agricultural and related products are important economically, and their numbers seem to be on the rise. In Lafayette County, near where I live, 40% of the labor force is self-employed. That‘s a lot. Half of those workers are farmers. And consumers of all stripes seem to be seeking better knowledge of where their stuff comes from which bodes well for the smaller businesspeople.
In this instance, Dumgoyne is an offshoot of a larger agricultural concern and provides additional “value-added” income through the sale of quality fibers. You can pick-up a ram lamb, too, if you’re in the market. They feature registered Icelandic sheep and various other breeds comprise the rest of the herd. The attraction is obvious: Dumgoyne Farm’s fibers are rich and extraordinary.
Products are marketed through Savor Wisconsin (a great, free service to buyer and seller alike), at a wool and fiber expo, through a web page and Dumgoyne especially word-of-mouth. “Some of the people I sell to have unbelievable skills,” says Jacqui. “They’re crafty people, if I may. We know each other, help each other out.”
Among other reasons, it is obvious agriculture is a means to an end in this case. Caring for rescue animals is an important part of Dumgoyne Farm because it is an element of the belief system of the farmer: Jacqui loves being with and having animals. The last time I called Dumgoyne Gus the macaw was doing some serious decibels in the background and other birds were making a chorus of it. The dogs watch over the sheep and occasionally warm the couch if needed. Small animals, large animals, birds and bunnies – all have a place there.
The sheep support more than themselves.
Farming of any kind is hard work, especially in winter and if the operation involves animals. “Sheep can get stuck in the snow”, says Jacqui, so she uses the pasture nearest the house. Hard, prolonged winters create havoc with watering and feeding and stress animals and people alike. Trucks, skid steers, tractors and almost anything with a motor will give you problems. It isn’t an easy occupation and it carries a lot of risks and less control sometimes than one would hope for.
That being said, spring, summer and fall can be pretty nice.
If there’s a common thread to what makes many of the farmers I know tick, it seems to be lifestyle and independence. A lot of these folks would farm regardless of the type of operation – they like being outside, they’re the decision-maker and they could be content in differing types of farming.
Some like to market their goods directly – meet the customer and share the story. Others are less gregarious. Some are truly committed to a rural lifestyle and others to producing the healthiest consumables they can. Some are the latest of many generations in the same business.
I’m going to make an effort to talk to more producers over the next month or so – maybe blog a bit more about what I learn. Their perspective is a part of the connection that may have been be a bit lost over the last few decades. But it is starting to be found again through the success of Buy Local movements and the efforts of caring consumers who demand to know where their goods come from and that those who produce them get a fair shake. That’s a partnership we all can bank on.
Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners
Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)