10/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent
TUNBRIDGE, Vt. — This was a first for the ladies from Alabama.
For the past 17 years, close friends Lucia Barrentine, Nancy Handley, Lynne Thomas and Mary Lynn Glasscock have taken an annual trip.
Always embarking from their Birmingham, Ala., home, they have trekked along North Carolina’s mountains and delved into the diamond mines of Arkansas.
This year, however, they agreed on a foliage trip to Vermont. At their Marshfield bed and breakfast in late September, they saw a flier posted for a sheep and wool festival in nearby Tunbridge.
So they went.
“We were just in awe,” Thomas said, as she and her friends were leaving the annual Vermont Sheep & Wool Festival held Sept. 28-29. “We’re not so crafty, so we respect the farming and the process that goes into something like this. And we appreciate having the final product.”
Under sunny, blue skies that draped amazing foliage-covered mountains, about 2,000 people attended the festival, which also attracted more than 70 vendors to the Tunbridge Fairgrounds.
For 25 years, the Vermont Sheep & Wool Festival has been the showcase for the work, animals and products of the 200-plus members of the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association. The festival is an important source of member education and recruitment, said Jane Woodhouse, festival treasurer.
“We are the local face of natural fibers in this state,” said Woodhouse, who was at the festival as a vendor with two Angora goats: Priscilla and Poppy Seed.
The association has existed for more than a century. Its members have different sheep breeds, farm sizes and philosophies, according to its website.
The first festival was held at Vermont Technical College in Randolph. From there, it went to a ski resort and then to the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction before moving to Tunbridge in 2009.
“I have no clue about the size for the first festival, but I suspect it was significantly smaller and less expensive to put on,” she said. “I doubt the crowd was anywhere near the size of our current crowd.”
Demonstrations, such as those for shearing and border collies, have been a core of the festival since its inception, and they attract people. The festival has also become the place where farmers, spinners and knitters know they will see each other every year.
The biggest changes in 25 years have been the “size and scope and the diversity of the products,” she said. “The quality of fibers and the range of breeds have expanded enormously in 25 years.”
In terms of the greater wool industry, Woodhouse said Vermont is a “blip on the screen, ” since the state does not have the landscape to produce thousands and thousands of pounds of wool, mohair or other fibers.
“What we have in Vermont is an opportunity to custom process and add value to our fiber,” she explained.
Vermont sheep farmers raise animals on a small scale, Woodhouse said, but command a higher price for healthy, clean fiber. Also, producers’ raw fiber and yarns bring in a much higher price, but not without some cost.
“We are often grazing on neighboring farms or marginal pastures on hillside farms,” she said. “The long winter means higher hay costs. But we are a model for buying local and Support Your Local Fiber Farm.’ While the notion of local fiber production does not get the same press as buying local food, it is a growing movement.”
Festival vendor Elizabeth Willis of Pittsford, Vt., established her sheep farm, Green Mountain Romneys, in 1995. Romneys are a breed of sheep known for their hand-spinning fleeces, “and they make a good meat lamb,” Willis said.
Willis was all about rabbits and wasn’t even interested in sheep when she bought her first one. Now, she has 17, including the three she brought to the festival: Rambo, Almond and Magnolia.
“The hobby got out of control,” Willis said, while chatting with customers.
Willis is also a professional shearer and shears for about 200 other farmers in New England, mostly Vermont and Massachusetts.
This was her second year as a vendor at the festival and said she would return.
“The people are great,” she said. “They’re down to earth and they all share the same passion about sheep.”