Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm: Community Supported Agriculture for fiber folk

Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm made it to the top ten in the Shine A Light award process, which I mentioned in my last post, although it was not among the three finalists. Because I can't imagine any more appropriate business to win this award, I'm guessing that in the final judges' review larger outfits with more traditionally defined communities got the edge.

In every regard that I can come up with, Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm is a clear winner. So I see its nomination as an opportunity for people within the textile world to vote for it in other ways that involve more than just a click of a mouse on a website, in ways that support the farm itself and also help spread the ideas that are coming out of MVFF.


Here's the gist: Susan Gibbs originated the idea of using the Community Supported Agriculture
concept for a fiber-related enterprise—an idea that is absolutely
brilliant, deserves to have the brightest of lights beamed on it,
warrants huge direct support, and demonstrates a model that could, as I
noted earlier this week,
boost the chances for survival of rare breeds of sheep while
introducing people who use fiber to materials they haven't had the
opportunity to encounter. And more.

  • Here's the Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm nomination on the Shine A Light website.
  • Here's the farm's own website.

Part of Susan's mix of animals are Cotswolds, which are one of the
rare breeds. She also has Angora goats (which grow mohair), and Cormo
and Babydoll Southdown sheep. Overall, a lovely spectrum of fiber
qualities, combined with the critter personalities she
likes to spend her time with. . . .

Those who are not involved with
fiber production tend to think only of the final product. Those who
are involved with it—and that includes the shareholders in MVFF who
have, thanks to Susan, access to information about daily farm life and individual animals—know that the goats and sheep (and roosters: poke around the farm site) have both breed-based
approaches to life—just as, say, chihuahas and Golden retrievers differ—and unique personalities. Small farmers in particular will select types of animals that are compatible with the life of a unique farm family, in addition to being able to contribute the desired crops, such as fiber.

Here's some of what's cool about what Susan is doing at MVFF:

  • creating community around the farm, where participants share the risks and the benefits inherent in any agricultural pursuit
  • developing a different, more viable, economic model
  • setting up a "lambcam" and other resources so folks can stay in touch with what's happening at the farm
  • helping other potential shepherds get started, by supplying animals and support
  • consulting to folks who'd like to change their ways of doing business to be more rewarding in all regards, including economically
  • providing a focal point for "Yarn Storming," where fiber people with excess stash share their abundance with people who are having trouble obtaining materials

There's more, even though that's already a lot. But stepping back to the central definition and the reason for this post. . . .

What's Community Supported Agriculture?

Community Supported Agriculture has evolved over the past 20 to 30 years as a type of business partnership that provides non-food-producing people with safe, local sources and gives farmers more stable markets. Farms that operate on this model are called CSAs. Members, or shareholders, pay in advance to participate for the year. This money provides the farm with operating cash when it's most needed: during planting and growing. At harvest time, the farm's production is divided between the members.

In our city, we have had CSAs for vegetables and fruits (and, as a bonus, flowers) for quite a few years. Our family participated in the first CSA in the state of Colorado. There are now at least half a dozen food-oriented CSAs of varying sizes operating nearby. They range from tiny to relatively huge. The biggest ones operate partly as CSAs and partly as suppliers to local restaurants and grocery stores, and the word "huge" still applies only in relation to other small businesses.

In this year of multiple hailstorms, one of the larger CSAs, a farm that escaped the worst of the battering, shared produce with the members of a smaller CSA that had its crops wiped out repeatedly by the weather. In addition to the connections among the people in each CSA, the CSA groups also choose to be part of a larger, mutually supportive community.

CSA and Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm

Applying the CSA idea to fiber took a bright idea, a leap of faith, and a bunch of creative work. It also sets up so many connections: between growers and fiber users, between people and animals, between humans and landscapes.

There are more wonderful things to say and share about MVFF than I have time or space to cover. Browse around the website for fun and a lot of great ideas.

Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm offer shares for knitters/crocheters and for spinners. The flock includes Angora goats . . .


and the three breeds of sheep I mentioned:

  • Cormos, which grow very fine, soft, long-stapled wool (ballpark 17-23 microns and 4 inches/10cm long).
  • Babydoll Southdowns, which grow a wool that's on the fine side for the Down breeds (ballpark 23-31 microns and 3 inches/7.5cm). These are the variety of Southdown that is closest to the old-style
    breed, before industrial factors influenced development of the larger,
    commercial Southdowns.
  • Cotswolds, one of the classic (and rare) longwool breeds (ballpark 33-42 microns and 8-10 inches/15-20cm).

Here's a quote from the website: "[A] Yarn CSA share makes a great gift for all the knitters and
crocheters in your life. If you’re a spinner you can purchase a 'spinner’s share' in the form of raw fleece or roving.
Our farm practices humane animal husbandry, we are 'predator friendly' and none of our animals are ever sold for meat."

Here's one of the secrets of being "predator friendly":


If you're not up for a share just now, don't want to wait for next year, or the shares have all been sold alerady (each CSA has a limited size . . . there's plenty of room for more CSAs!), the shop has yarns, needle-felted sheep, wool-filled pet beds, and other treats.

It's all about relationships

When I first mentioned the idea of CSAs as a way to provide more financial stability and incentive for people who are raising endangered breeds of sheep, one friend suggested that I could do this, setting up a system where I'd coordinate the purchase of shares by fiber folk, would channel money to the growers, and would send out shares of wool at shearing time.

This is a perfectly valid small business idea, and a fine one at that, but it wouldn't be what I'm talking about. I'm not the grower. I would be just another business standing in the middle between the producers and the shareholders. I couldn't offer the direct relationships which are key to the success of CSAs. (I've also got a few other commitments taking up my days . . . and nights!)

CSAs are about people helping people, not just providing a product (however fair trade, local, or sustainable). They're about our understanding with some immediacy (even when carried out through the internet) our interactions with the natural world, including specific places and living beings. They're about sharing the risks involved in producing farm products, and also about sharing the pleasures and the bounty. They're about connections between unique, identified, people and animals.

Even a large CSA will be small by today's business standards. One of the exciting things about them is spreading the idea. Our local veggie-and-fruit CSAs have helped each other get started and grow, and also, as we've seen this year, have helped each other smooth over some weather-inflicted rough spots.

While a CSA has to operate successfully as an economic entity, Susan Gibbs at MVFF has given animals to others who want to start growing fiber. She also provides consulting services to farmers who want help with creative ideas that will set up new relationships between people and make life more rewarding and enjoyable for everyone involved. She does, and should, charge for providing that help—her experience can shorten other folks' path to forming more nurturing communities and more solid financial arrangements.

So let's take this opportunity to shine a BRIGHT, BRIGHT light on Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm! It's a winner in all the ways that matter.


Images copyright © Martha's Vineyard Fiber Farm. Used by permission.


3 thoughts on “Martha’s Vineyard Fiber Farm: Community Supported Agriculture for fiber folk”

  1. Ahh, I’ve gotten behind on your fabulous posts! One thing I’m seeing, more and more, is that good farmers, shepherds, etc. are not always good publicity and advertising specialists. CSAs are wonderful, I belong to one for veggies, but I see many farmers who are not up for the communication level that CSAs require. They just lack the time, or the skills or the desire. The CSA model is one that needs a helper, at times. I don’t necessarily think of a person who organizes it as being in between the farmer and the consumer. I see that person as being able to help the farmer do farming–and the consumer gets a value added product because of all the information, communication and advertising that comes with it.

    I don’t think a farmer who can’t manage the publicity and the delivery of goods because of lack of time or skills doesn’t deserve to be part of a CSA. I just wish that farmer could hire a coordinator, just as, say, another kind of business might, to get the job done!

  2. A farmer I met with over this past weekend has considered the CSA model, but doesn’t want the “pressure”–some perceive it as that, and some perceive it as relief. He’s doing just fine growing his vegetables and taking them to farmers’ markets. He operates in a more serendipitous mode.

    I do think that anyone who organizes a CSA *does* need to be close enough to the farm to develop the sense of relationship and immediacy, although certainly it doesn’t need to be the farmer. Someone could do the organizing work for barter.

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