Thinking About Fiber


Farm Notes

For my June article in Mohawk Valley Living, I wrote about my recent experience selling a group of ewe lambs for breeding stock. I (slightly) underpriced my lambs, not fully appreciating the amount of extra work required to wrangle the larger, stronger, skittish girls. In the article, I was honest about my doubts and concerns over selling breeding animals versus animals destined for the dinner table. To be frank, the whole transaction was a little outside of my wheelhouse. But I’m almost always open to trying new things, especially when it comes to farming. 

A good friend and fellow farmer once remarked how much he admired my husband’s and my willingness to try new things, to adopt what works, and to let go of what doesn’t. I think in this instance, it helps that we haven’t been full-time farmers our whole lives. We recognize that we have so much to learn…and that is ultimately what makes us love this profession. 

Every new experience is an opportunity to learn new skills or facts. As I get older though, I find the BEST new experiences are the ones that teach me something new about myself. How lucky am I that I am still learning things about myself? 

The recent experience selling lambs for breeding stock did not convince me to go into business as a breeder; however, it did reveal a growing but unrecognized desire to get out of the meat goat business. As I get a little older, I’d like to spend more quality time with my animals and to keep them around longer. If only I could raise the goats for a different purpose and still get to enjoy tending to the mothers, their new babies, and the health of the herd… 

We recently learned about raising cashmere goats and what that would entail. Cashmere goats are a type of goat rather than a breed. All goats (except Angora) produce an undercoat that is softer and finer than the outer coat. Cashmere goats have a dominant gene that produces fine, crimpy hairs long enough to spin and is produced in high enough volume. So it may be possible for us to introduce cashmere genetics into our herd without having to replace the lot of them. 

Cashmere goats can be any color. White may be the most sought after, since it is the easiest to dye, but grey, black, and shades of brown are all acceptable. Rather than shearing the animal, as you would a sheep, the cashmere fibers are combed out in the early spring. A good cashmere goat will produce 4-6 ounces per year. To make a sweater, you’d need about 16 ounces cashmere or approximately one ounce to make a scarf. 

Much of the world’s cashmere comes from the steppes of China and Mongolia (the origin being Kashmir, encompassing parts of India, Pakistan, and China). Over the past few years, demand for the luxury fiber has surged, and herd numbers and their sizes have ballooned in response—by some estimates, there are 5 times as many goats grazing there than there were 30 years ago. Unfortunately, this has led to overgrazing and, compounded with the effects of global warming, desertification. And much like coffee, chocolate and other luxury items sought by the West, the herders see very little in fair wages for their efforts. A raft of labels has come forward to address the issue of fair trade in the fiber industry, but none has really brought the issue to the fore. 

Don’t ask me why, but all of this has me thinking about becoming a Cashmere goat herder. 

But how does a farmer research a possible new agricultural venture? Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there. Cornell Cooperative Extension, as well as other state extension systems are a fabulous first stop with databases of searchable topics, free downloads and presentations, spreadsheets for profit and loss calculations, and contact information for academicians by field. Another great stop is a breeders or growers association. The Cashmere Goat Association website has a wealth of information, from helpful links to lists of breeders. 

I also had to seek out and speak with Cashmere goat farmers. On June 12, I took the opportunity to visit the 10th annual CNY Fiber Arts Festival in Bouckville. Set in a big hayfield/campground, there were over 60 vendors set up with everything from bags of roving, to brightly dyed skeins of yarn, to expertly knit sweaters, hats and more. The organization that puts on this event, CNY Fiber Artists & Producers Inc., seeks to “foster appreciation of the fiber arts as well as an understanding of the connection between fiber animals and the artistry they inspire.” So it was no surprise that several vendors brought their animals—alpacas, Romney sheep, Angora rabbits, and multiple types of goats—including cashmere. 

I quickly found the woman I came to find: Pam Haendle of Hermit Pond Farm in Brookfield. Pam has one of the oldest Cashmere goat farms in the Northeast, and her name came up time and again in my search for information. She was clearly busy, so I had only a moment to ask a few important questions. (Can I crossbreed with my existing meat goat herd? How does color play into the fiber’s value? Is there a “useful life” for a fiber animal? Are their dietary needs any different from my meat goats?) She happily answered all of my questions and seemed pleased to share her passion! I walked away with her business card and a promise to e-mail with even more questions, excited to be following up on my new-found interest. 

To be fair, we won’t be making any abrupt changes in our farm and I’ve only just begun to think about fiber farming. But change begins with an idea, followed by old fashioned research and plenty of pondering. It is a journey I enjoy very much and look forward to sharing with you!