Dakota Spinning Mill - A post by Anna

A few weeks ago we took a little road trip to Fargo, North Dakota to pick up our first batch of homegrown yarn! The boys were super excited, as road trips always mean pizza on the bed, hotel pools and ice machines! This kind of road-trip was equally as exciting for me because - well YARN!


 I had to search quite a while for a place to process my fibre,  there are no mills in Manitoba or Saskatchewan, and shipping fees to other Provinces can be quite exorbitant. Thankfully, I was able to send the fleece down south in the summer and a few months later I recieved the call that it was ready! We arrived at the  Dakota Fiber Mill and were greeted by Chris, owner of the mill and one of the greatest fibre folk I have ever met, and her 7+ foot tall camel - staring out at us around the barn!



I have never seen a camel this close, and we were all awe-struck. He was so gentle, and quiet, and it seemed as though his big huge eyes were all knowing. I seriously think Luke is trolling kijiji and local livestock pages for listings of camels. Chris brushes this guy once a year, and she said it takes about a week to fully brush him. She then spins his fibre with a blend of wool and/or alpaca. I bought of skein of this yarn and it's beautiful!


Chris has a mixed flock and herd of other fibre animals including alpacas, angora goats, jacob sheep, cotswald, and angora bunnies! All her animals are friendly and you can tell they are well taken care of and produce beautiful fibre.


Chris gave us a tour of her wool mill and also the small retail shop attached. It was such an informative, lovely tour, and helped me understand wool processing on a new level. Chris answered all of our questions, and indulged the boys as they asked her all about every little thing in the mill - mostly the parrot that lives in the mill and totally captivated my boys!

yarn on the spinner

yarn on the spinner

I cannot take credit for the quality of this yarn - as the fleece was grown while the sheep still lived at their first home - the farm of my good friends and shepherdess mentors Margaret and Linda.  But having this first batch of fleeces spun into yarn is giving me a good idea of what to expect with my growing little flock. We have sent some of this yarn to the Kickstarter recipients that supported our fundraiser last year, and the rest of it will become available for sale in Spring 2017.

fleece drying after being washed

fleece drying after being washed

As a long-time knitter and owner of a local yarn store for 6 years, I had never before visited a spinning mill.  I found the tour and experience invaluable to really connecting me to what is involved in the process of 'sheep to shawl' I strongly urge any of you that have not had this experience to find a local wool mill and go for a tour.


And for those of you who are in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and wish that you had a mill to visit, hang tight, because I am planning to open a wool mill! I wasn't going to say anything on the blog until it was officially going to happen. But I think I would love the feedback, comments, suggestions, and encouragement from all of you, as it's a huge undertaking and I need all the moral support I can get!

Long Way Yarn!

Long Way Yarn!

We are hoping that the mill will be open late 2017/early 2018, but we are still in some early planning stages.  I believe that this is such a crucial step in creating a sustainable, local and environmentally sustainable industry. So much of the fleece from Manitoba sheep farmers is shipped to other parts of the world where it is cleaned/carded/manufactured and then shipped back to canada as yarn, insulation, rugs and textiles.  How amazing would it be to change that produce our own yarn in our own community! 


I will share more details with all of you that are following along in the next few months, but in the meantime thanks for your excitement and support of this journey!  I'll leave you with one more camel picture - because CAMEL!

Training Day

Note to self: Farming requires a lot of equipment.

Somehow we didn't get that memo.

Recently we needed to corral our sheep. Corralling sheep is difficult when you don't have a corral.

Or sheep dogs. Or technical know-how.

Or anything remotely helpful, really.

But we did have 4 acres of penned in space and my inherently flawed idea that I could just run them down.

This was the plan:

First, I'd mosey up all sneaky-like. Then I'd sprint toward the herd and fling myself onto the nearest sheep.

Then Anna could run over with her vet-to-go kit, administer a gargle of anti-snail mouthwash, and give it a shot of meds.

Release sheep, high five, repeat.

Sure, launching myself at them would probably scare the crap out of them and scatter the flock. But they're sheep. What doesn't scare them?

Besides, if they bolted we'd just lure them back with oats. They always come back for oats. So as long as I managed to snag one each time we could just repeat this process until they were all vaccinated.

Anyway, that was the theory.

Here are some shots from the first 2.7 seconds of this attempt:

Total fail.

Turns out sheep are as untrusting of rapidly approaching threatening figures as they are quick. Who knew?

So we gave up and re-grouped around the internet. Luckily for us our neighbour (who also has sheep) forwarded us this video:



This was pretty helpful.

I mean, just look at this champ. Who's his BFF? Buzz Lightyear?

Only a person with total self-confidence leaves the house dressed like that. So listen up, this guy's got something to say.

All you have to do is note your pressure zones, keep fluid, and provide avenues of escape so your sheep will choose to go where you want them to go. Basic animal psychology.

Seriously, take another look. This is like the Ted Talks of sheparding.

Anna absorbed all this information...none of it really stuck for me.

What can I say? I guess I'll always be from the “Crazed Luchadore” school of sheep herding.

But I had my chance.

Heading back to the pasture, I screwed together a maze of temporary fencing using whatever we had on hand.

Screwing together temporary crap always kills me.

I hate making clap-trap constructs. Oh, it kills me. Grabbing an unmeasured length of 2x4 and anchoring it to the side of something barely standing with whatever screws I have on hand? ...shoot me now.

But these animals are fighting off parasites, right? So buck up and get the job done.

So there we are. Back at the pasture. Funnel-fencing up. Our goal: lead them into the shelter and lock it down.

Pretty much my role was just to hide around the corner, trying not to look like the guy who had chased them around the field like a psycho.

So there I crouched. Gripping my sheet of plywood, ready to spring.

Every once in a while I poked my head around the shack for a look.

“I'm doing it!” Anna shouted, lurching back and forth, maneuvering the sheep.

“You're doing it!” I agreed.

“Shut up! You're scaring them!”

“I'm not doing anything!”

Shut it!

The sheep saw me and tensed.

“I got them! I got them!” I said, stepping out from behind the shack, moving back and forth like that human Pixar guy from the video.

“What are you doing?” Anna asked.

“I'm helping.”

“You're not helping!”

“I'm helping! I...oh shit...”

The sheep started to panic and break up.

I ducked behind the shack and tucked into a ball.

I guess it wasn't necessary for me to tuck into a ball. I was completely out of sight. But maybe animals sense auras or something. In the moment I thought if I totally submitted maybe they'd come back. What can I say? You gotta commit.

“I'm using drawing pressure!” Anna shouted. “Now I'm using driving pressure!...It's working!”

I could hear them clomping and bounding. When sheep choose a direction to go, they go. And they were definitely going toward the shack.

A moment later I heard them all clomping into the shelter.

“I got them! I got them!” Anna shouted.

That was my cue. I grabbed the sheet of plywood and ran around the front.

Anna was blocking the entrance, the sheep were in. I slapped the plywood into place and screwed it down. Then I flopped over to help.

“Who's next?” I asked.

We had already vaccinated a number of them. (Randomly).

A while before this I managed to grab a few. Back when I had their trust. This minor victory is what gave me the false hope I could jump them all.

That time I kind of just drop tackled them. It worked, but it was an awkward scene. Two hundred pound me flopping down onto a fifty pound sheep...and then getting dragging around in circles across the dung-covered hay like a poorly rigged Super Dave Osborne prop.

Also, since that attempt the temperature had dropped to surface-of-Mars levels. And stayed there. A couple weeks of minus twenty to mid minus thirties. No time to mess around.

Anyway, this time we did it right. Got them into the shack, flipped them onto their haunches one by one and finished the job. All gargled, all vaccinated.

...all good? I sure hope so.

I removed the plywood from the front of the shack and the flock bounded out. I watched as they took a rip through the snow. Stepping out into that wind made the minus thirty five feel like minus a hundred.

But there was something in that moment. The dull winter sky with it's foggy dot of a sun hanging just above the horizon. The bare, dead clumps of vegetation poking up through the snow covered prairie. These animals with their huge coats and bare legs pounding through it all. And my wife and I watching them, squinting out from wraps of clothing, trying to figure them out.

You're going to laugh...but it made me think that if it really came down to it we could survive an ice age.

If anything it's good practice.

Come on, we're doing it! Even Mama Llama is bouncing back. I mean, she just pulled through three solid weeks of cold-as-it-ever-gets temperatures. And she's looking great. Well, not great. But still chewing! Standing!...Not dead!

Instead of heading back in, we lingered a bit.

Anna walked out and directed the flock. Got them to move in a clump just by backing away and stepping in, moving side to side when she needed to. It was crazy how quickly they responded to her. And I was in plain view and they weren't pissed!

We could do it, we could survive an ice age. Humanity pulled it off once before, right? I know we could make it.

I mean...

...as long as we had pre-mixed vet supplies.

...and internet tutorials.

...and probably a bunch of other stuff.

Crap. I should be making a list.


I might be crazy

Usually I'm on the right path if people in my life think I'm a little crazy. Protesting big oil in the middle of Alberta, going to University after barely graduating from high school, moving to Europe to nanny for a family I've never met, trying to stop the olympics from destroying people's homes, opening a yarn store in the middle of a recession. The list could go on, but all of these 'crazy' ideas have always resulted in some life changing experiences and realizations, so I welcome the accusation that I may be crazy. Which is exactly what happened last week.

"You are crazy Anna. Buy a tractor" 

Said my dad (the former grain farmer), in response to my description of seeding my pasture without any sort of machinery - by hand, in 16' by 16' sections.

"Well I don't have the money to buy a tractor, and I'm not really sure if this is going to work anyway, but I think I will keep trying"

So this is where I'm at.  My Kickstarter has almost reached its goal - which means that in 2-3 months I will actually be starting a sheep farm. I've never been a farmer before.  Actually, I've never really even had a garden before. So yes I may be crazy.


I have spent the last year mulling over 'what next', I don't do well without a plan. I think I read every book there is to read on 'grass farming' and 'restorative agriculture' and 'small farming' and 'sheep raising' and after a random conversation with my bestie (Caitlin ffrench) the idea of a fibre farm and CSA was born.

"This is perfect, this is exactly what I'm meant to do.  How quickly can I buy some sheep?"

I could see it on my husbands face when I told him the idea - the look that says, "Well, I better not stand in her way.  I better get on board - my wife is a little crazy"

So I started this crazy plan. We didn't buy this property with livestock in mind per se. We wanted a few acres to eventually have sheep, but we were mostly attracted to it because of the acres and acres of forest and 'explore potential'. This means that some work will need to go into preparing it for livestock.

Our portable pig pen and our pastured pigs.

Our portable pig pen and our pastured pigs.


So obviously the answer is to buy three pigs that we will rotate around the pasture in a 16 foot by 16 foot pen that moves (sort of) on a set of skids, and let them root up all the old dead grass, poop all over the ground and fertilize it, and then replant pasture seeds that will hopefully grow into a beautiful lush pasture that our sheep will then graze - all with zero experience and no machinery!


Well, the pigs are totally fulfilling their role - they have done a bang up job of tilling the soil, and the bonus is that they get to be outside, run around and do what they are inherently born to do (root) and they will taste good too (yes we plan to butcher the pigs and enjoy their meat all year long). 

Then I purchased a bag of pasture seeds.  I have to tell you - people in Manitoba are so damn friendly, the guys at Patterson Grains spent hours helping me craft a perfect mix of timothy grass, trefoil, clover and alfalfa that will all do well in my very wet pasture. I drove home with enough seed to plant 20 acres and I think even some hesitant thumbs up from the farmers who will go home and tell their families about the crazy girl who plans to plant an entire pasture by hand.

So I started planted, I made a 'harrow' from an old pallet and big fat nails weighted down by bricks. It didn't work as well as I hoped, the damn nails keep getting caught on all the roots and the heavy soil. So instead I settled on using a rake.  This is how it goes:

Move the pig pen.

spread the manure and rake the ground like crazy.

re-rake the ground and try to bury as much of the seed as possible.

stare at the sky and hope it rains, or stops raining depending on the week.



So last week, I walked out early one morning to feed the pigs and I swear I almost started crying - the most beautiful little green sprouts poking their tiny heads out of the dirt. I may be crazy, but this also may just work!

New growth in our pasture!

New growth in our pasture!


Footnote: Although my dad's comments are the impetus for this post, I have never felt anything but unconditional support from my family for ALL of my crazy ideas. Love you dad! After-all you are the original 'crazy.'