Preserving Heritage Wool and Century Farm Go Hand in Hand

8/3/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Western Pa. Correspondent

EIGHTY FOUR, PA — During the past century, the Ross Farm in Eighty Four, Pa., south of Pittsburgh, has undergone some changes. Cows have come and gone, equipment has changed, and different family members have been in control. But one thing besides the name on the barn has remained the same — sheep have always been a part of the equation.

“Ross Farm has always been a sheep farm,” Amy Ross Manko said recently. “We tried cows a couple of times, but sheep still seem to be the best fit for our family.”

When Manko’s parents took over the operation in 1983, they were running a herd of commercial sheep.

“They had Dorsets and Suffolks mostly,” Manko said, “but the costs of having them sheared were greater than the price we got for our wool. We wanted to work smarter, not harder. So, around 1993, we started looking at alternative options.”

Manko did some research and discovered the Cheviot breed.

“They looked like they had nice wool, and were also smaller and easier to handle,” she said. “This was important, as my parents were getting older but still wanted to be involved with the day-to-day operation of the farm. We were so pleased with the first Cheviot ram that we bought for several reasons. For one thing, the lambs he sired were smaller, and the ewes were able to give birth on their own. That was huge, considering that my husband, Scott, and I both worked off the farm at that time. Not having to be up all night long assisting with births was a definite plus.”

By 1998, the Mankos had started a registered herd of Cheviots.

“As ewes aged out of our herd, we replaced them with registered Cheviots and built up from there,” Manko said. “Then, in 2008, both of my parents became very sick and we began looking to simplify again. Scott quit his job to care for my parents and the farm while I continued to work. But I began researching ways to make more money from our farm, since there was still no money to be made by going to the wool pool.”

Manko noticed that artisans were willing to pay much more for a pound of wool if it came from specialty breeds.

“I figured, if I can sell a pound of wool for $15 direct to an artisan or for sixty-five cents at the wool pool, I should sell it to the artisan,” Manko laughed. “And then I heard about the Leicester Longwool breed.”

According to the Leicester Longwool Sheepbreeder’s Association website, Leicesters are known for being docile in flocks, producing lean lamb with excellent flavor, as well as high quality, soft, lustrous fleeces. The staples, or locks of wool, can reach eight inches in length, with a fleece averaging 12-15 pounds.

“We also purchased a few Jacobs, Tunis and Shetland sheep,” Manko said. “It was kind of an experimental flock for awhile, but they all immediately began producing the most beautiful wool. I knew we were on to something great.”

Manko direct markets her wool as rovings, yarn and batting.

“We have it processed and we travel to fiber festivals in the Mid-Atlantic states to sell our wares,” she said. “We tend to do pretty well because we are often the only vendor selling all-natural colors with no dyes. We also work with a company in Pittsburgh that is designing knitting patterns for use with our wool. We expect to feature these knitting kits at shows this year.”

Manko left her job at a nonprofit literary agency in 2011 to farm full-time with her husband and son, Drew.

“After my parents passed away, we narrowed our focus again, zeroing in on heritage and rare breeds of sheep,” Manko said. “We have six rare or heritage breeds right now. Leicester Longwools, for example, are critically endangered according to the the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. That means that there is an estimated global population of less than 2,000 animals, with less than 200 new registrations annually in the United States. Our flock, which increased by nine lambs this year to 22, puts us in the top five breeders in the country.

“We love our Leicesters,” said Manko. “That being said, there is a lot more involved in raising these types of animals, because their suceptibility to disease and problems hasn’t been bred out of them like in many commercial breeds. ... They require more care than some breeds, and frequent parasite checks are a must. They are definitely a labor of love. We know that this goes against our previous mantra of simplify,’ but we also know that we have found our passion. Our ultimate goal is to be fully utilized and in full production while being respectful of our animals and the environment. We want to help preserve these heritage breeds while preserving our heritage farm.”

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