|By KEVIN WALKER
FREEDOM TWP, Mich. — Although Marge and Louie Mills are retired and don’t rely on their 15 wool sheep for an income, they still consider their sheep operation a business.
Marge describes the different products that come from raising wool sheep as “value-added,” and describes raising sheep as “a lifelong learning experience.”
“There’s a lot of care we put into raising the sheep,” Marge said.
Indeed, the two take a lot of pride in how their sheep are cared for. They show off the clean, soft wool that’s grown thick on their Corriedale, Border Leicester and Romeldale breeds. They keep coats on the sheep year-round to keep hay, grain, dirt and manure off of the sheep’s coats.
Marge said, although the wool is washed, if the coats become too dirty with foreign matter, the fleeces will be virtually worthless.
The Mills were not farmers originally. They moved onto their 23-acre Freedom Township property in the late 1980s.
Louie built their house himself with green timbers. Somehow he completed the house in 10 months. He also built Marge’s workshop, another outbuilding where he works as an artistic blacksmith, and the barn. The barn is made out of recycled timber from other barns that were going to be torn down. He even used some foundation stones from one of the old barns.
Marge began acquiring the wool sheep one or two at a time 10 years ago.
“I just became enamored with the idea that wool could be turned into a product,” Marge said. “A lot of crafts people use wool.”
Marge heard about the trade from the Spinner’s Flock, a local group that gets together for wool-spinning sessions and related activities. Marge said it’s quite a sight to see people operating 100 spinning wheels in a single room all at one time.
The group holds its own fleece fair three times a year. Collectively the group sells about $30,000 worth of wool products at each fair. They sell felted and knitted hats, sweaters, mittens, slippers and other products.
Marge also teaches and holds workshops on the farm property. She has a picker as well as a carding machine in her work area. These machines were “significant” investments, Marge said. Each machine looks somewhat like an offset printing press, with rollers that process the raw fleece.
The picker takes the fleece, which has already been washed, and pulls it apart. After that it’s fed by hand into the carding machine, which turns the wool into roving. The roving is a loose, rope-like structure that’s wound up into a ball or onto a roller.
At that point it’s ready to be turned into yarn. A manual spinning wheel is hard on the legs, so recently Marge started using an electric spinning wheel.
A raw fleece that’s been covered with a coat can sell for up to $15 a pound. A sheep can yield six to 12 pounds of fleece a year.
Marge is selling a vest she made of Merino wool for $250. She said it took her about 20 hours to make.
For more information about the Spinner’s Flock, an upcoming fleece fair or Freedom Hill Farm, call Marge Mills at 734-668-1839, or send a note to 9450 Waters Road, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48103.
This farm news was published in the February 8, 2006 issue of Farm World.