I covet opportunities to introduce my grandbabes to my "ancient" past on a farm, knowing that they will never get chased from outhouses by yellow jackets, feel the joy of watching calves wobble on untested legs or see foaming bubbles dribble down a newborn piglet's chin when hand-fed from a baby bottle (this being necessary because the mother birthed more offspring than she has spigots).
But try as I might, I've never been able to coordinate a visit to Meadow Farm Museum in Glen Allen, which offers sheep shearing every Saturday in April. So I was thrilled to learn that Susan Gibbs, a former producer for CBS News, had established a sheep operation in Palmyra, about 25 miles from Charlottesville, that also shears in the fall. Gibbs, whose grandfather was principal of Highland Springs High School for years, had chucked her 70-hour workweeks after reading a book on sheep farming.
"I made the break at 31," says Gibbs, who started out in upstate New York's Hudson Valley, where "it was so cold we had to break the ice with a sledgehammer." The sheep loved it, but she didn't. "I grew up spending summers in Virginia," Gibbs says. "In 2009, I found the right place."
Now 40, "Susie" has settled into the routine at Juniper Moon Farm, herding 70 sheep and goats, some of which need shearing twice a year. The farm is run as a cooperative, offering wool to the members, who help the enterprise to stay afloat. Working weekends on the farm are also available.
I rubbed my hands gleefully as I gathered Maggie, 8, and Jake, 6, from Northern Virginia, anticipating a weekend of fun. I had already made a quick trip to the Chesterfield Country library for books on sheep. The grandbabes found the reading very interesting, especially since they got to touch some of my ceramic-sheep collection, heretofore off limits. The sheep, which have real wool hides and tiny bells around their necks, belonged to my late sister Doris. I allowed the kids to hold them as I read aloud.
Armed with new information, we set off early for Juniper Moon Farm. Once we arrived, the cold was forgotten as the babes tried to catch the Buff Cochin chickens, which look like they're wearing ski pants made of fluffed feathers.
Next I watched Maggie and Jake jostle for a good view among a crowd of kids as the shearer first worked with hand shears around a goat's face and then applied clippers that carved streaks through the wool on its body. Standing there, I remembered hearing Mama describe how she and Daddy stayed up all night during "lambing time" on the farm where they worked when they were first married.
The shearing done, we visited a makeshift store under Susie's carport. There was wool of every imaginable color, dyed on premises. Free hot apple cider complemented sheep-shaped cookies, sold to support a local band's efforts, and crowds of folks enjoyed the covered-dish lunch, provided by guests and consumed at picnic tables near the spinning demonstrations.
Throughout the day, door prizes were awarded. My number got called, and I went home with a shank of specialty wool.
Recently, I asked the babes what they remembered about our trip.
"I couldn't believe their coats came off in one piece," Maggie said. "I liked touching the sheep afterwards. They were so soft, but I really wanted to pet a baby goat or a lamb."
Jake nodded, adding, "Me, too."
Juniper Moon Farm's next shearing is set for May 14, but I'm headed to Meadow Farm in April, since it's closer. When we pet those lambs, I'll think of Mama and Daddy again and know that they'd be happy I'm passing on their legacy.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.