Laurie Ball-Gisch skirts her Leicester and Icelandic fleeces hard: Only the best for her customers.
It takes years of hard work to keep living a dream, but those who make this effort don’t see it that way.
For Laurie Ball-Gisch in Midland, Michigan, 130 miles northwest of Detroit, her labor of love is her flocks of rare Leicester Longwool and Icelandic sheep.
To support her lifestyle in the lush farmlands of central Michigan, Ball-Gisch is also a potter, a weaver, a writer, a producer of sweet-smelling lavender and an Icelandic sheep dog breeder.
She switched from a classroom career as an art educator and moved to her 40-acre farm in early 1999.
“I was a spinner and a weaver and I envisioned a few fiber ‘pets’ here so I could say I made something from the wool of my own sheep,” she says.
“I also felt strongly that this old farmstead should have some livestock again. Little did I know at that time that eventually my original vision would turn into a farm business that is The Lavender Fleece.”
“We purchased our first sheep that fall, and had our first six lambs born the spring of 2000. At the end of our 2012 lambing season, we welcomed the 620th lamb born on our farm since that first lambing season 13 years ago.”
Ball-Gisch’s journey to shepherd began early. She started weaving while working on her undergraduate degree in art education at Eastern Michigan University.
“Some years later, I attended an event where there was a woman demonstrating a spinning wheel. I was absolutely riveted and stood for a very long time watching her spin wool into yarn,” she says.
“Because I was a weaver, I was enamored with the idea of making my own yarn for weaving. Like many new spinners, I was fascinated with the idea that there were so many breeds of sheep and types of wool.”
She sought out local shepherds and purchased raw fleeces to find out what type of wool she liked to work with.
“I remember that every time I visited a sheep farm, I felt an immense sense of peace,” she says. “I really loved looking at and being around sheep.
“Many years later, when we purchased our farm, the dream of having my own sheep and harvesting their wool was able to be realized. This led me to getting our first Icelandic sheep.”
Going into the breeding season each year she averages 35 to 40 adult Icelandic ewes.
“I routinely keep back 10 to 12 of that year’s promising ewe lambs,” she says. “We try to use at least eight to ten rams during breeding season to be able to provide starter flocks of unrelated rams and ewes to other farmsteads.”
She added the Leicester Longwools to the farm in 2011.
Those early exploratory trips to sheep farms decided her against “commercial” breeds.
“Because I was a fiber person, I wanted to raise fiber sheep,” she says. “I loved the myriad natural colors that the Icelandic sheep can be.
“I can remember visiting farms where there were commercial breeds of sheep and they just didn’t pull at my heart string. I also was not interested in running a straight freezer lamb operation.”
She fell in love with the Icelandic sheep based on how beautiful and elegant the animals were.
“I loved all the colors and patterns and spotting variations the breed could exhibit and the horns were stunning,” she says. “I liked that they were a primitive breed—unadulterated by cross-breeding into something completely different.”
It was her renewed passion for weaving that led her to the Leicester Longwools in the winter of 2011.
“After all these years of raising children and sheep and building a business, I finally got back into weaving,” she says. “I was searching for Longwood fleeces for weaving fleece rugs. I was actually out of my own wool at the time so I enjoyed searching for a fleece that would best suit what I was looking to do.”
She bought and wove with Wensleydale, Cotswold, Border Leicester and Lincoln fleeces.
“It was harder to find Leicester Longwool fleece, but when I did, I fell in love with the wool,” she says. “I began to research the breed and I felt an immediate connection to them.
Laurie Ball-Gisch’s Leicester Longwools
“I loved reading the history of Robert Bakewell and his selective breeding for an improved breed of sheep.
“I was also impressed by their impact on other breeds of sheep, as well as their connection to our founding farmers. Because the Leicester Longwool sheep are so rare now and are on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy critically endangered list, I wanted to add them to our farm, hoping that I can make some small impact in helping to preserve them.”
Icelandic sheep, herded by Icelandic dog.
The Leicester Longwool is found in the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand and is listed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as critically endangered. This means there are fewer than 200 North American annual registrations and an estimated global population of less than 2,000.
The Icelandic sheep in contrast is a direct descendant of the sheep brought to the island by the early Viking settlers, in the 9th and 10th century. It is of the North European short-tailed type, related to Finnsheep, Romanov, Shetland, Spelsau sheep and the Swedish Landrace.
Genetically the Icelandic sheep is the same today as it was 1,100 years ago and is possibly the oldest and purest domesticated breed of sheep in the world.
Ball-Gisch says there are few on-farm work differences handling the two rare breeds. “Icelandics have horns, so one has to handle them a bit differently than a polled breed,” she says. “The Leicesters are larger than the Icelandics, but they are proving to be fairly docile and easy-to-handle.”
With Leicester Longwools so rare, Ball-Gisch—a frequent contributor to sheep!—is intent on increasing their numbers.
“I am working on promoting the breed through my website, advertising, my writing and displays at various fiber festivals,” she says. “We only had ten lambs born our first season, and I retained the four ewe lambs to build my flock.”
She sells the Icelandics as breeding stock, fiber pets and freezer lamb—more often than not finding demand exceeds supply.
“I’ve never been able to produce enough extra rams for the freezer to meet the demand for whole and half-lamb orders,” she says. This year she had “farewelled” the last of her sales sheep by July.
Because her Leicester flock is new, she feels a need to stabilize the flock and to continue to raise awareness of the breed.
“It seems many current Leicester Longwool breeders have very small groups of the sheep, producing few lambs each year,” she says. “Also, it appears most of the farms are located in Virginia and on the east coast. I encourage sheep owners throughout the north, south, Midwest and West Coast to add Leicester Longwools to their farms. I believe the Leicester Longwool is an extremely flexible breed, doing great in the worst of our winter weather and weathering the extreme heat and humidity of the worst summer on our farm amazingly well.
“The lambs proved very parasite resistant; I didn’t have any issues with their health this past summer. The longer they are here, the more in love with Leicesters I am.”
Dispersing the breed nationwide would also help decentralize the genetics so they’re better set to be saved, should there be unforeseen disasters that cause a local depopulation of the breed.
Her Leicester flock so new, she hasn’t yet sold any for meat. She hasn’t even tasted its meat. “I’m told that it too is a milder flavor like the Icelandic,” she says. “I don’t like strong-flavored lamb or mutton from the conventional meat breeds, but really like the ‘gourmet’ flavor of the Icelandic.
“We don’t grain our sheep here, so my sheep are either pasture or hay fed, which also affects flavor.”
Ball-Gisch subscribes to the thinking that selling meat helps a rare breed’s survival. “Absolutely,” she explains. “We believe that any breed of livestock needs to have a ‘bottom line’—providing healthy food to the community. What do you do with the eventuality of so many extra males if you can’t sell them for meat?
“The benefit of raising sheep is that lamb is good eating. And it’s good for you. While I still have a little bit of trouble with the idea of directly eating a lamb I watched grow from a beautiful baby into a handsome animal, I know that those extra lambs that go into the freezer for our family or friends, neighbors and customers, are providing healthy food that is humanely raised.” Her lambs are raised on free choice pasture-and-hay and are free to roam the fields.
Paying Their Way
In Iceland, the main income for the shepherds is the meat. Wool is secondary, but an important resource. “Icelandic lamb is so tasty that chefs here in the U.S. who get the chance to work with U.S.-raised Icelandic lamb usually rave about it,” Ball-Gisch says.
“Right now I don’t believe we’ve even begun to tap into the potential restaurant market for Icelandic lamb. A friend and fellow breeder in Montana is building a great business marketing her Icelandic lamb to restaurants and she cannot keep up with the demand from her chefs.”
The Leicester Longwool was improved through selective breeding by English farmer Robert Bakewell in the mid 1700s. At the time, it took four years to raise a sheep to market. After Bakewell’s “New Leicesters” the to-market time frame was reduced to two years.
“Today, our markets want lamb that is raised to butcher within the first year, with most people wanting their lambs to go in the freezer by six to nine months of age,” Ball-Gisch says.
“Early-to-market” is important to shepherds who feed hay during winter months. It gets too expensive to feed extra rams for up to a year before sending them to the butcher.
Ball-Gisch says her sheep sales have consistently been good, but her hay bill each year is so high the sheep have to pay their hay bill first and foremost—as well as the rest of their upkeep.
“So while sheep sales are probably the biggest gross returns we have, sheep upkeep is also the biggest expense each year,” she says.
The farm usually produces 60 to 80 lambs each spring.
“If hay weren’t so expensive, I’d like to raise more, so I could meet demand for my freezer lambs each year,” Ball-Gisch says. “The price of hay determines how many sheep I feel I can afford to keep through winter. And hay price is directly related to the price of gasoline and diesel and also of course, weather conditions.
“The 2012 drought is going to very negatively impact the sheep industry, as it will all farming commodities. Food for everyone—two and four-legged—is going to be very expensive in the coming year.”
With her Leicester Longwool flock still building, she has 20 ewes and seven rams. “I need to have enough ewes and unrelated rams to be able to put together starter flocks for new flock owners,” she says.
The sheep are shorn twice a year. “I hand-skirt my own fleeces and I’m very picky,” Ball-Gisch says. “I may skirt off 50 percent of the fleece and the remaining wool will be made into yarn or roving for handspinners.”
Some 25 percent of the skirted wool becomes compost and 25 percent is used for felting batts.
The spring clip yields much less useable wool.
Almost all of the ram fleeces then are used to compost the spring mud holes at the gates in the fields. “There will be some nice fleeces that may go into roving or yarn, but the bulk of the good wool from our spring shearing is made into felting batts,” she says.
Ball-Gisch has never been able to produce enough wool to meet the demand. “I sometimes purchase or trade for wool from a select few breeders who produce quality, clean fleeces that can supplement my lack of inventory,” she says.
Her customers are handspinners, knitters and felters, many of them long-time customers who purchase from her every season.
“I still attend fiber festivals as a vendor to get my fiber out to new customers so they can see and feel the quality and uniqueness of my products,” Ball-Gisch says.
“I’ve always had Stonehedge Fiber Mill (in East Jordan, Michigan) process my wool because Debbie McDermott will work with small specialty batches for me.
“For instance, I may take a very special ‘only fleece’—like a badgerface fleece (beautiful silky cream) and have her blend it with some alpaca and silk. These specialty blends are my best selling rovings. Stonehedge does a beautiful job processing the long fibers of the Icelandic and the Leicester Longwool.”
Ball-Gisch sells raw fleeces, roving, felting batts and yarn. She also markets horns, horn buttons, pelts and freezer lamb.
“When I have time, I also weave fleece rugs that sell well and I have good luck selling my hand-knit/felted hats,” she says. “The past couple of years I’ve picked up a couple of wholesale accounts.”
The farm grows about 600 lavender plants and the crop is used to produce hand-made soaps, sachets, lip balm, fresh and dried lavender bundles and tea.
She’s been making soap for 13 years and it’s still one of her best-selling items, including goat milk soap made with milk from her own dairy goats.
The farm acquired its first Icelandic sheep dog in 2002 when the family needed help rounding up sheep.
“I had heard that Icelandic sheepdogs had a natural herding instinct plus great ‘recall’ and a desire to please,” Ball-Gisch says. “I felt this would fit our more informal herding needs here.” She’s an approved breeder with the Icelandic Sheepdog Association of America and all puppies are registered with the American Kennel Club (AKC).
“I love the Icelandic sheepdogs,” Ball-Gisch says. “They are absolutely the best family dog and can be a wonderful farm helper as well. It was after people would visit our farm and fall in love with our dogs and say ‘if you ever decide to breed’ that I decided to go ahead and breed from our dogs.”
The farm’s Lavandels Kennel, which means lavender in Icelandic, usually produces one litter of five or six puppies a year.
“We don’t produce a litter until we have at least three or four families on our waiting list,” she says. “Most puppies are sold before they’re born and many of our puppy families have been willing to wait one to two years to get one of our puppies.”
Several dogs have been show winners, including Lavandels Kyssa, who has gone to the Eukanuba dog show two years in a row and is an AKC champion.
Ball-Gisch says she probably could be commercially viable running only sheep, but she’d have to have an entirely different business model.
“To be honest, I’d probably be bored if I did ‘just’ sheep,” she says. “I have so many other interests that I’ve built into my business that revolve around things I enjoy doing. Having a diversified product line helps keep the business growing; I don’t think we have enough land to raise only meat sheep on pasture and I have never wanted to grain-feed sheep for ‘across the scale’ sales.”
The pottery, weaving, lavender and dog breeding businesses aren’t necessarily essential ingredients for somebody else’s farm, Ball-Gisch says. “But they’re my passions, my interests and my skill sets, so they’re woven into my business; they’re who I am. I’d expect other small farms to create their businesses around their own interests and talents.”
One of the farm’s outbuildings is used as the sales outlet. The internet accounts for about 30 percent of sales, via her website www.lavenderfleece.com, which she built and maintains herself.
Winter is a time to build up inventory of soap, pottery, weaving and knitting, and the time when sheep get free choice hay, minerals and shelter from Michigan’s wind, rain, ice and snow. “They need to have access to clean water—breaking ice is one of the more tedious of winter farm chores,” Ball-Gisch says. “Over the years we’ve tried to lighten our work load. Adding water hydrants in strategic areas, as well as electricity now lets us use heated water buckets in a few areas, a real time saver!”
Mid-Michigan location means hay must be fed mid to late fall through early spring. “I stock the barns with enough to last a year,” she says. “We’ve found consistently over the years that sheep consume five to seven pounds of hay a day. We don’t grain the main flock, but I usually train my weanlings in the fall to the grain bucket by offering them whole corn and oats—about a handful each—so they’re easily enticed to follow.”
There are barns and shelters in all areas where there are sheep so they can get out of inclement weather whenever they want. Outdoor “bale box” style feeders with roofs on them keep hay dry and clean and fleeces don’t get as dirty as with other styles of hay feeders.
Roaming neighborhood dogs are always an issue. “We also have coyotes and we recently found out there are bobcats and a cougar in the area as well,” she says.
They keep several guard llamas on the farm and have added two Great Pyrenees.
“Thus far we haven’t lost any sheep to predators, though we’ve had problems with our free ranging chickens and ducks this summer: Opossums and raccoons were the culprits.”
“We’ve done artificial insemination here on the farm,” she says, but, “I’m now most interested in working with my current genetics to move the flock in the direction I want and hope to not have to buy in more stock.
“It really does take years to improve one’s stock and to get a consistent flock that looks like it ‘belongs together’,” she says. “I remember one shepherd mentor who told me, ‘Just concentrate on improving one trait per season and not try to do it all at once’—and to remember there will never be a perfect sheep.”
She doesn’t enter competitions involving sheep because she doesn’t like taking her animals off the farm and exposing them to other animals in fair settings. Also, the main fiber events in Michigan are held in the hottest part of the summer—not just stressful for the sheep, but also the shepherd!
Ball-Gisch has been conservative in building up the farm and the business. “We only worked with our own cash flow and savings—never borrowed any money for the farm business,” she says. “We grew the flock and the farm infrastructure only as the sheep or the farm business generated cash flow—and as we gained skill in sheep management.”
Don’t expect a few sheep to pay your mortgage or to support the family.
“I know it sounds very trite to say ‘have a business plan’, but even sketching out a very basic plan of what products you will have for sale—who will you sell to and how will you reach your customer—are basics that you have to address if you want a successful small farm business.”
Put the money you make from the business back into the business.
“I have not drawn a salary from my farm business because I have put all of the extra money—after taxes and after expenses—back into growing the business,” she says. “This includes putting funds into a business savings account so that is there as a cushion. “It was money put aside in the business savings account that I used to invest in the Leicester Longwool sheep”: With some funds held in certificates of deposit, she was upset when renewal time came up and the credit union offered only .74 percent as annual interest, down from 2.5 percent!
“I told my husband I could make more by investing in sheep than having money sitting in a savings account with such abysmal interest earnings,” she says. “And that’s what I did: Took money from savings and bought the Leicester Longwools. A $600 ewe, if she has twins, can generate for me at least $225 a lamb if I sell that lamb ‘whole’ direct to a freezer customer. My annual cost to keep an adult sheep for one year is about $130. So, if that ewe can twin reliably, and if my bottom line is the freezer, then she’s generated $450—less upkeep of $130—or $320 of earnings that ewe generates in one good lambing season.
“If her lambs are good enough to be sold as breeding stock, then her income is even higher: In two years she’s paid for herself and her yearly upkeep,” she adds.
“A barn full of raw fleeces stored in bags or boxes is not an income until you either sell those fleeces raw or process them into a marketable product and sell that,” she says.
Importantly, she says, farmers shouldn’t be stingy with their best stock.
“If you want your farm and your breeding stock noticed, you have to produce quality animals and sell them. You can’t last very long if you only sell cull animals or your less desirable animals to other breeders. If you sell wool, you must sell good wool. Not every ounce of fiber that comes off a sheep is sellable.
Lavender Fleece Farm’s yarns: Laurie Ball-Gisch says wool can generate income, but there has to be cash flow to pay the mill for up-front costs of roving, felt batts or yarn manufacturing.
“When I got my first four Icelandic sheep, I didn’t have enough fiber to sell, but I wanted to promote Icelandic sheep and their wool. So I bought raw fleeces from other Icelandic sheep breeders. I would always look forward to receiving each fleece I bought in the mail.
“I’ll never forget opening boxes of raw wool that were stinky, filthy and matted. Some of those fleeces went straight into the garbage and I lost a lot of money. Never, ever sell garbage wool!”
Learning The Business
Ball-Gisch says if farmers want to sell wool at top prices they need to learn about wool. “If you don’t have a mentor, there are usually classes at fiber festivals,” she says. “Check into fiber festivals in your area and if there aren’t any, invest in a ‘business vacation’ to attend one: By attending a fiber festival, you can learn a lot about the products vendors are selling and also see if there’s a niche market waiting to be filled by a unique product from your farm business.”
When it comes to obtaining stock, she says, remember you really do get what you pay for. “Free sheep or ‘rescue’ sheep are often more expensive in the long run than investing in quality, healthy animals from reliable breeders,” she says.
Ball-Gisch says starting out small is fine. She began her sheep farming career with four ewes and one ram. “The next year we went up to ten sheep,” she says. “Then as we got more confident in our shepherding, we built the flock up from there. We grew the flock only as we earned money for more fences for pasture rotation. All money that went into these improvements was generated through this business.”
For those unsure of the breed they want to raise, Ball-Gisch recommends buying wethers of the breeds being considered: “Get to know sheep in general and breeds in particular, before you commit hundreds or thousands of dollars into a breeding flock. Be unique in what you do and you’ll attract more customers, more quickly.”
The job of the sheep is to grow wool, reproduce themselves and rear their lambs, but they can’t sell themselves. “To have a successful business you have to invest time and money in advertising and marketing,” Ball-Gisch says.
“While the internet has changed the way people do business, the things that make it a good tool also are the same things that are its downfall. If it’s easy for you to do, then it’s easy for a thousand other people to do the same thing.
“You have to work above and beyond to stand apart from (and stay ahead of) the rest of the people who are doing the same thing you’re doing.”
Attention to infrastructure is essential, including having an area where the sheep can be easily caught.
“Many people are proud they’ve just fenced in five or 10 acres for their new sheep, but if they don’t have a catch pen or area in place, they may never see them again,” Ball-Gisch says. “The best thing we ever did was create a walk-through area in the center of the farm where we can run sheep from four different sections of pasture into a common area, which is central to three different barns.
“We set up gates going in four different directions, including several smaller gated areas in the center so we can easily work the sheep and sort. I can walk through this central gate system in a nonchalant way and the sheep will follow me right through into the larger paddock area. It helps to have a second person come in from behind to close the main gate after the sheep have followed me through.
“Once the group we’re working with is caught, we can do whatever needs to be done without a rodeo roundup situation that’s hard on all of us.”
Ball-Gisch says people wanting to set up a small sheep operation should visit other sheep farms: “Offer to help them on a sheep-handling day so you can find out if you even like being around sheep. Then follow through by purchasing stock from those who’ve taken the time to teach you about sheep.”
Events Generate Sales
Ball-Gisch holds open farm events in May, October and December that attract up to 700 people in a day.
“We keep it family-friendly,” she says. “We don’t charge for parking or to enter the farm. We offer free refreshments and treats. We try to have a variety of other activities and I invite other farmers and a few select crafts people to join us for the day—without charging them a vendor fee—to help promote them to the local community.”
These open days now attract people from as far as Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and they account for about 50 percent of annual retail sales.
She began incorporating open farm days into her business plan about six years ago. “My vision for an open farm day was to have a day that felt more like the old fashioned family reunions we used to have when I was a child,” she says.
“I would encourage small farms to look into agri-tourism as another way to supplement farm income. There are so many ways to do this, but the main thing to remember is that most people don’t live in the country, on a farm, like we do. Yet people of all ages gravitate towards farm animals and are thrilled to have a chance to spend as little or as much time as they like with us for the day.
“We meet many people who say their grandparents farmed and they’re so happy to be able to share a farm event with their own grandchildren. It’s also a way for me to consolidate some of the people who want to visit the farm: By giving them an invitation to a special open house, it helps me to eliminate some individual visits that take up a lot of my time.”
Ball-Gisch is mulling the idea of on-farm courses for would-be sheep farmers.
“I’ve been talking about this with friends who are also shepherds,” she says. “I’m considering offering a ‘sheep school’ to mentor those interested in raising sheep and giving them an intensive weekend of hands-on exposure to sheep-handling with discussions of health and management issues as well as farm infrastructure design.” (Those who participate could also apply the course fee towards purchase of breeding stock from Ball-Gisch’s flock.)
Running this multifaceted farm and dealing with sheep, pottery, weaving, lavender, dog breeding—and the public—is demanding. “I admit at times it’s a challenge,” Ball-Gisch says. “There are really not enough hours in a day to do all I need or want to do. I have to prioritize on a daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal basis. But most importantly I have a husband who’s always supportive of my business. Together we’ve created a lifestyle that suits both of us. Our children all help out in the business in one way or another.”
There are heartbreaks: During last summer’s long, cruel heat wave, several of her Iceland sheep died from heat stress.
“It’s so frustrating and heartbreaking to have such healthy, beautiful big lambs struck down by heat and not be able to do anything for them,” she says.
What would she do different now, if she was starting up again? “I would have purchased a farm with more land at the outset—and I wish we were farther away from a busy road,” she says. “Our location is easy for our customers, but I really wish we had more privacy and more acreage.”
Still there are intangible rewards: “I treasure our farm, land, animals… and the quietness of not living in town,” she says. “I’m happiest when I’m home. Some of my favorite moments are sitting under one special tree with sheep surrounding me, chewing their cuds and just ‘being’.
“I can handle the ‘hectic’ because I really do love what I do and where we live.”
She has words of caution for those just beginning in a sheep farm business:
“Love what you do; then your passion for your sheep and your products will be attractive to others,” she says. “I would not raise sheep if I didn’t love the sheep I have. It’s difficult to sell something you don’t use or believe in.”♈