Driving down the California coastline on a farewell tour of the state she called home, former CBS news producer Susan Gibbs pulled off the highway. She had quit her job; the contents of her Los Angeles home were packed into boxes. She was about to move across the country to New York city, and Ms. Gibbs wanted to say one last goodbye to the Pacific Ocean.
She wandered along the streets of a small waterfront tourist town and ducked into a bookstore. From the shelves she plucked a book, Barnyard in Your Backyard. In that instant, her life changed.
Ms. Gibbs knew not many homes in New York came with a backyard, let alone a backyard big enough for a barnyard. So when the deal for a new apartment fell through, Ms. Gibbs did not pout. Rather, she and her husband signed a purchase and sale agreement for a 139-acre farm upstate.
With no farming background and only her book as a guide, Ms. Gibbs entered the farming world. She drove her Land Rover (the farm equipment had not yet arrived) over to New Jersey to buy her first four sheep. Only two fit in the car at a time, so she drove with two sheep and a carful of hay across Manhattan and up to the farm. Twice.
The flock soon grew to include two baby goats and a Cotswold sheep. Ms. Gibbs, who left CBS and the news world feeling burned out and exhausted, had not yet returned to work. “I really wanted to do something with animals, but I did not know what,” she said. She tried meat goats, but found it too upsetting and sold the goats within six months. Without any plan, she continued to grow her flock.
“Sheep are just so peaceful,” she said this week from a makeshift barn on the Thimble Farm property in Tisbury. Andrew Woodruff, who leases the farmland, let Ms. Gibbs set up camp in the former greenhouse during kidding season this winter, a time when nanny goats have their babies. “Goats are just the opposite, actually. They are so curious and get into everything.”
Within a year of buying the farm, Ms. Gibbs and her husband divorced. Alone with a herd of livestock and no plan, Ms. Gibbs returned to work. She took a job at a daily paper, and it was on assignment there that she met New York state assemblyman Patrick Manning. She was ending her divorce, he was starting one. She was trying to start a farm, his family owned a tract of land. She interviewed him, he fell in love with her, and together, they decided to get serious about sheep. And goats. And a chicken or two.
The couple came to Martha’s Vineyard to ring in the 2006 New Year. Mr. Manning was about to step down from the assembly and Ms. Gibbs was browsing the local paper when she spotted an ad for a position with the Island Affordable Housing Fund. She encouraged Mr. Manning to apply and, on a whim, he did. She was out with the sheep one morning when Mr. Manning, on Island for the job interview, called. “Susan, I think I got this job,” he said in awe. “We cannot move to the Vineyard!”
Ms. Gibbs thought otherwise and move they did.
Initially, the couple left their animals in New York. They had purchased a town house in Edgartown with no room for livestock. But Ms. Gibbs missed her flock. “You can hire someone to take care of your animals, but they won’t do it in the way you would,” she said.
They moved the animals to the Island soon after, keeping them initially at the FARM Institute in Katama. This winter, they moved the majority of the flock to Felix Neck. Suzan Bellincampi, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society sanctuary, had been looking for goats to graze down their fields. Ms. Gibbs volunteered hers and also sent over a few sheep and her two farm dogs, Fettucini and Biscotti. The rest of the herd spent the winter in the converted greenhouse where six of the nanny goats (with names like Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins) gave birth to seven baby goats (Oregano, Tarragon, Juniper, Sassafras to name a few).
When the couple moved to the Vineyard, Ms. Gibbs took a job at the Chamber of Commerce and another at WMVY, but her ultimate career goal was that of farmer. Before she could reach her goal, she knew her farm had to bring in more money. “Most people with small farms end up throwing the wool away because fiber is really expensive to process when cut,” she said. Between the cost of feed and hay and bills from the veterinarian, the couple never recovered the money they spent to process the wool and fiber into yarn from their animals. “It was like a really expensive goat and sheep spa,” Ms. Gibbs said.
Ms. Gibbs was raised in the Texas suburbs. Her blond hair is coiffed and she talks a million miles a minute. She says things like “crazy expensive” and “so hot right now.” But, she also drives a huge blue pickup and delivers baby goats alone at 4 a.m. She has the vet on speed dial but rarely has him come to the farm, choosing instead to dole out vaccines herself. She may look like a girl from the suburbs, but this girl’s roots are on the farm.
Ms. Gibbs needed more money and, this being the 21st century, she turned to the Internet to make it. She liked the idea of community supported agriculture (CSA), whereby supporters pay a flat fee, which allows a farmer to start the growing season, in exchange for a share of the farm’s seasonal harvest. In recent years, the importance of buying locally has become something of a gospel and, with it, CSAs, traditionally the realm of produce and flowers, have formed for eggs, herbs and meat.
Ms. Gibbs wondered how a yarn CSA would fare. “I thought it was a good idea, but I was not sure,” she said. She advertised the concept on a number of blogs and an online craft store. For a fee of $100, customers could buy a share of her yarn from the spring shearing.
Ms. Gibbs launched the world’s first yarn CSA on September 30, 2007, from the computer in her Edgartown home. By Christmas, the 100 shares had sold out. “It’s amazing to me that people bought it without knowing what they would get,” Ms. Gibbs said. Soon, people were e-mailing Ms. Gibbs to ask when more shares would come available. Since she shears the goats and sheep twice a year, she made another 200 shares available for the fall shearing. To accommodate the demand — and to indulge her love of the animals — Ms. Gibbs will double the size of her flock this spring. Shareholders hail from every state except the Dakotas, as well as Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
When she began the yarn CSA, Ms. Gibbs sent out e-mail updates and photos of her flock to the shareholders. But soon the task became burdensome and she created her own blog, mvfiberfarm.blogspot.com, which she updates at least once a week. Through the blog, Ms. Gibbs has found an online community of knitters, animal lovers and female farmers. “People feel so attached, it’s as if they were their animals,” she said. Her shareholders read her updates avidly, croon over new photos and send words of encouragement. “These people whom I’ve never met are just so amazingly supportive. How many shepherds in the world have a fan club?” she asked.
When they joined, the original shareholders were invited to Martha’s Vineyard to attend the first shearing of the flock. Ms. Gibbs figured no one would come, but then, the e-mails started flooding her inbox. A group from Long Island had set up a carpool. A shareholder from Austin had booked a flight. A New England-based travel agency specializing in textile vacation packages had planned an entire weekend itinerary. With the wheels already in motion, Ms. Gibbs contacted a number of Island farmers and began planning a fiber festival to take place at the agricultural hall in West Tisbury.
Tomorrow, yarn and livestock enthusiasts will descend on the hall. From 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., guests can watch the shearing take place and attend felting and dyeing workshops. Musicians will take the stage, the Scottish Bakehouse will provide boxed lunches, and for sale will be Island-grown, hand-spun yarn, fleece and roving. Only local farms were invited to participate and 11 Island farms will be there Saturday. “I want everyone on the Island to sell all that they have,” Ms. Gibbs said. Admittance is free, but donations are welcome and will benefit Felix Neck.
Although she is nervous about the upcoming event and the future of her farming venture — “I keep thinking, ‘What if people stop knitting?’” — Ms. Gibbs has grand plans for the coming months and years. If all goes well, she will host another shearing festival in the fall. “I think we can turn it into a really nice shoulder season event,” she said. This month, she and Mr. Manning will begin offering weekend getaways to their farm, the Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm, for aspiring shepherds and avid knitters. “Agritourism is so hot right now,” she said. And, the couple has, after a lengthy search, finally found a home for their animals.
“Land is so crazy expensive, finding land seemed like an impossibility,” the shepherdess said. Just last week, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank granted Ms. Gibbs and Mr. Manning a five-year lease on the five-acre Tisbury Meadows property. Still, the couple hopes to one day buy property where they can live and farm in one location, a property large enough for a small bed and breakfast and a fiber mill to process their own yarn and that of other Island farms.
Until then, Ms. Gibbs will stay busy on the Internet with her online community and outside with her flock. Much of her time now is spent answering questions from folks near and far who are looking to start down the path she has taken. “I would not have been able to do this without Andrew, Suzan, Jim Athearn,” she said of the Island farmers who rallied behind her when she arrived here. “The Vineyard just embraced us and our idea and our animals. The nice thing is, we can now share this,” she continued. “So, when people come to me with goat questions, I answer them. When they come with looking for advice on starting their own yarn CSA, I spout it.”
The inaugural Fiber Festival is free on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the agricultural hall in West Tisbury, with shearing demonstrations, felting and dyeing workshops, music, food and sales of Island-grown, hand-spun yarn, fleece and roving. In conjunction with the festival, Island Alpaca will ahear at its open house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1 Head of the Pond in Oak Bluffs.