Thursday, May 16, 2019

Shepherd Profile: Deb Potter

This is part of a series on shepherds who raise sheep on the Conservation Priority List. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Livestock Conservancy.

You can find Deb Potter of Merciful Hearts Farm on Facebook and Instagram.

What breed do you have and how long have you had them? 

We have a handful of breeds that are on the list and have been raising sheep for 20 years here in Upstate South Carolina. We started with Tunis and have often leaned toward the breeds on your list. We currently have Jacob (5 adults), Hog Island (5 adults), Shetland (3 adults), Lincoln (2 adults), Cotswold (1 adult). We were also blessed to raise a Navajo Churro orphan several years ago and still have some of his fleeces. My husband is a part time shearer (only about 75 farms) and shears for farms that have Clun Forest, Gulf Coast Native & Southdown. When others reach out to us asking for guidance in establishing their own flocks, we usually recommend they strongly consider breeds on the Conservancy list.

Why should a breeder sell their wool?

Although the obvious answer would be that it brings in a little more money to offset farm costs, it goes a lot deeper. As fiber artists/makers/crafters explore wool it is nice to give them a choice beyond the few commercially popular choices. Most fiber artists love texture and it is easy to see an amazing array of textures, color variations and other aspects of rare wool to incorporate into their work. I've always been a storyteller so find that most of my customers love to follow my Instagram as well as hear my stories of the sheep and their backgrounds and history. It is also a good way for the community to support those of us trying to continue the legacy of these precious sheep. The movement to support local and smaller farms has also worked in our favor. We like to have products from our wool available for those reaching out to support local farmers.

Why have you chosen to sell your wool in the form you do (raw, roving, yarn, etc)?

We sell raw fleece but I will also be selling my handspun as time allows. As it is, most of the people I directly encounter want the "complete experience" from fleece to finished project. I recently reached out to a local yarn shop that hosts a spinners group. I brought in fiber samples (raw & just washed up) from our various breeds and also spread a tarp out on the floor and dumped a freshly shorn and skirted Jacob fleece on it. We had a great time talking fiber characteristics and it also gave me an opportunity to explain the ups and downs of sheep farming. I do a very well attended weekly farmer market in downtown Greenville, SC so also use that time to educate visitors. That is where I will sell the bulk of my handspun. Not only do I have a local following for my yarns and other value added wool products, Greenville gets an amazing number of visitors literally from around the world. They are often looking for something easy to pack to take home from their trip. And they especially love something with a local connection or story.

What is one important thing you have learned about sheep management as it relates to selling their wool?

As well as we manage the sheep in terms of diet, pasture, feeding process, etc. it is still in our very best interest to skirt fleeces dramatically and be very straightforward with the condition of fleeces and amount of VM. In the long run, it makes a lot more sense to sell a smaller amount of good quality clean fleece and have happy customers than to offload a bunch of fleece until your reputation and customer dissatisfaction catches up with you.

Why do you not coat your sheep?

It is a lot of extra work and with our humidity and other issues we would be hard pressed to keep up with it all. Good on those who do - we just prefer not to.

What is one surprising thing you learned about having sheep that are not coated?

Again, never wanting to compare our practices to others, we are able to produce enough quality fleece on healthy sheep that we are content. And I love to look across my pastures and see woolly sheep ;-)

What is one important thing you learned about selling your wool?

A good fleece from an honest seller will give many returns in repeat business and new customer referrals. It is good to keep up with social media and understand that many fiber artists want to know "who" their fleece is. I try to provide a picture with every fleece and also a name and story. I am also quite straightforward about the challenges of shepherding as well as the joys! Much of what we do is relationship based - our relationships are with our sheep, others in our farm community, our customers and all that we may impact in person and online. Selling the wool is important; promoting sheep and wool in general is also something that we thoroughly enjoy!

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