Susan Gibbs left the city to give sheep farming and yarn-making a spin.
By Sharon Selz
If you’re ready to embrace your inner Bo Peep, you can count on Susan Gibbs’ sheep to get you started.
“If you knit, crochet or spin, you’ve probably dreamed of owning your own flock of sheep or goats,” Susan says from her picturesque acreage on the rural outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia. “Here at my home, Juniper Moon Farm, it’s actually possible.
“You can purchase a share of our clip, and we’ll take care of the details—like trimming hooves, mucking out stalls and feeding during snowstorms.” Beside that, you get a chance to know the real wool producers up close and personal, fleecy head to wagging tail.
The path to her pastoral profession was a meandering one, Susan says. Just 12 years ago, she was working long hours as a network news producer in New York City, but longing to do something she found more meaningful. A chance encounter with the book Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep changed everything. “I realized I was born to be a shepherd,” she says.
The learning curve was steep. She recalls visiting veteran sheep farmers and reading everything she could get her hands on about animal husbandry. “One year and many, many books later, I bought a farm, five sheep and my first livestock guardian dog,” she says. “Every day since has been an adventure.”
A Wool and a Way
Having found greener pastures at Juniper Moon Farm, Susan now runs about 100 breeding sheep and a handful of Angora goats. “At first, making ends meet was difficult,” she admits—until she decided to put a crafty new spin on her operation.
“In 2007, I came up with the idea of a fiber and yarn CSA,” she says, referring to the now-popular Community Supported Agriculture programs in which customers buy shares in a farm’s future harvest. Hers was the first fiber CSA in the country, she says. Instead of getting fruits and vegetables, members invest in next season’s yarn harvest.
“Our customers buy shares in advance for $175 each,” she says. “This helps defray the cost of our animals’ upkeep and also pays for milling the yarn. In return, shareholders receive a certificate and several skeins of yarn, or wool roving for spinners, made from the spring shearing.”
Crafters delight in their fluffy bounty. Susan raises Cormo sheep with long, soft locks producing fine white wool that’s ideal for knitting. Other yarn comes from her flock of Border Leicesters, which range in color from lustrous black to silvery gray. Her goats provide luxurious mohair.
High on Fiber
“Many of our shareholders take pride and ownership in the farm, and I welcome it,” Susan says. “They’re my cheerleaders when something amazing happens and my encouragers during the difficult times.”
Susan keeps this tight-knit bunch updated on farm happenings through a photo-filled blog, fiberfarm.com, and posts on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. “We set up a live ‘lamb cam’ when the babies are due,” she adds. “And we ask subscribers for suggestions when it comes time to name our newborns.”
Twice a year, CSA members are invited to the property for a friendly wool gathering. “We host two big events annually—a winter solstice party and a shearing day celebration,” Susan says. “People come from all over to visit the farm and meet the animals and other shareholders.”
Her guests take to country life like a sheep to spring pasture. “After watching the flock get a haircut, many pitch in and help with sorting the wool,” she says. “We have a ton of fun on shearing day—good food, lots of laughs and plenty of breaks for knitting. Meeting our customers and seeing how much they love the animals is so rewarding.”
Once shearing is complete, Susan and her farm helpers skirt the wool, removing sections of fleece that are coarse or dirty. Then it’s sent to a mill in Canada’s Prince Edward Island to be washed, carded, combed, spun and plied into yarn.
When the yarn is returned, Susan hand-dyes part of it in small batches before mailing it to shareholders. “Our customers can opt for natural yarn or choose from three colors,” she says.
Juniper Moon has also launched a popular line of commercial yarns made with fleece from many farms and mills from around the world.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with amazing designers who have created signature crochet and knitting patterns for us,” Susan says. Both the commercial yarns and patterns are sold at craft shops across the U.S. and Canada: “I like being involved in every step of this creative process, from fleece to finished garments.”
What aspect of her fast-growing business does this dyed-in-the-wool shepherd love best? “It has to be when our ewes have their babies, in April,” Susan says. “Lambing season is absolutely magical and never fails to reaffirm my wonder at the world.”