Bye Brook Farm

This year, Maine Yarn and Fiber Supply held an exclusive Five Farms Yarn Club. You can read more about it here. Jodi took the fiber from five different sheep from five different farms - all in Maine - and curated a collection of yarns which she then paired with knitting pattern designs from five Maine designers. The story below, written by Jodi Clayton, is from one of those farms. We'll be adding the rest of the stories to this platform over the winter. Check back for more Five Farm magic. ~Cindy

Using any way of reckoning Bye Brooke Farm is a long way from anywhere in the continental United States. Just a couple of exits shy of the border Maine shares with New Brunswick, Canada, mindfully seated on a low ridge looking east, this small sheep farm isn’t really on the way to anywhere. But then, it doesn’t take much time gazing across the low rolling fields and tidy tree lines of Aroostook County, past the garden beds bursting with flowers and food, and over the curling backs of contented sheep to ask yourself one simple question: Where else would I want to be?

It may be hard to resist the blush of summer laying on this rolling land, the fertile and gentle welcome of the sun and the green bounty that it brings for a few months each year. And yet, this is a northern place. A place of harsh winter winds and chilled vistas. The romance of green pastures of plenty and sheep on the hoof must be sustained and strengthened by something more enduring, something that runs deep and close to the bone.

As we head north up the interstate, we are bracketed by low marshlands, old hills, and a multitude of rivers and streams, native place names marking the miles as well as any modern map. The day is strangely and magically clear. Mt. Katahdin, when we come upon it, stands sentinel on our western shoulder as we go.

As historical logging woodland begins to give way to modern day Amish farms, we leave the highway, cutting east on ever narrowing roads until we go to dirt and the ridge road that will take us to Michele Bye, of Bye Brook Farm and her multi-generational flock of Romney sheep.  The farm and homestead are modest yet opulent, prosaic and powerful and absolutely imbued with the spirit and philosophy of the sheep and their shepherdess.

In full disclosure, I have known Michele for about 20 years and from the first I have found her intriguing in the way of free spirits and wise women. To meet Michele in the summertime is to meet a woman with her feet planted in the soil, literally (her shoes are nowhere to be seen), and her head in her gardens and sheep. In the summer her sheep are truly easy keepers, rambling from pasture to pasture, according to the way the moveable electric fencing is laid out, and meandering to the barn at night. Summer means providing water, scratching ears and little else. A welcome respite from the daily requirements of winter, when daily haying and checking for frozen water is the routine. The ample pasture that this farm has to offer means good rotation and abundant forage, key components for a flock of sheep to be parasite free and healthy.

Michele moved to this land about 10 years ago from a homestead in central Maine, where she also kept sheep. The original flock began with 2 bummer lambs (Molly and Amanda), or bottle lambs. These are lambs who are not able to nurse from their mother. This can happen for a number of reasons and can often result in early mortality for the baby. The term “bummer lamb” refers to babies who, being motherless and hungry, bum milk from other nursing mothers. As you may expect this does not always go well for the wee lamb. I prefer to say “bottle lamb” if for no other reason than because it seems kinder, but I am not a farmer of sheep and can afford the sentiment.

Michele began raising sheep before learning to spin, drawn to the animals themselves. Two lambs became a small flock. Out of self-defense and a need to rid herself of the mounds of fleece that were piling up, Michele learned to spin and to breed, grade, skirt and market her fleece for handspinners. From the beginning this has been a dual purpose flock with a fiber focus. The careful breeding that Michele undertakes is all about the fleece, its length, luster and color. That said, successfully breeding for high quality fiber requires culling, and time. It is always interesting to talk about the farming of any crop with a farmer. My husband and I dabble, planting a vegetable garden, growing flowers, raising laying hens and bees. However worthy as that may be, it is not farming - not really. Farming is many things, but it is not romantic or sentimental. Farming is tough, especially in a cold and remote landscape where winter, real winter, can go on for 6 months.

Here farming is work; it is care. It is tough choices, short nights and long days, heartache and triumph. It is love.  Every handspinner who has swooned over a fleece should know that it would not be there without careful flock management and many difficult decisions. Sustainable agriculture of critters does not mean that everyone gets to live. When I asked Michele what has been hardest about caring for her flock over the years, she told me it could be boiled down to just a few things; the winters, lambing, culling and the unexpected crisis.

At the moment crisis seems far away as Michele takes us for a stroll through the barn and into the main pasture. There are a number of sheep here, mostly the older ladies and gentlemen and a few of the older spring lambs who like to hang out with their dad, Francis. Francis is a stocky white Romney with pretty classic conformation for the breed. He has a barrel body, short sturdy legs, and a large ram head with impressive ears passed down to a number of his offspring. I have a personal attachment to Finnegan who is now over a year old with a distinctive face and a beautiful fleece that resembles crinkle cut French fries. Like his father, Finnegan is white, sturdy, and curious. Unlike his father, Finn has been wethered, the term for castration in the world of sheep. Wethered sheep may be a dead end in terms of breeding but they often produce the best fleece and can make great companions. While ewes may go through periods of gestation, wethers are free to put all of their energy into growing wool. They can also help a flock of ewes cycle together and this can make for more predictable and controlled breeding and lambing.

I asked Michele how she determines which of the spring lambs to keep each year and what she does with the rest.  She has a pretty careful system of selection for her babies. Ewe lambs are more easily dealt with. If the fleece looks good they stay or are sold on as breeding ewes for their fiber. The ram lambs are a bit more difficult because, unless you are running a flock of wethers, a farm just doesn’t need that many boys. So the wee rams better have great fleece and a great personality to stick around. If Michele does not need a new ram, she will wether the rams lambs she likes and the rest will be sold as fleece producers or as meat. She typically will keep a ram for about 3 years and then needs to cycle out to refresh the gene pool. Rams also can be loaned out to other farms for that same reason. Francis spent a season on Nash Island doing his level best to contribute to the genetics of the Nash Island flock. More on that next month when we talk about Jani Estell and the island sheep.

One of the things that impresses me the most about Michele, aside from her ability to make a mean pie, is her amazing grip on the genealogy of her flock. Twenty years in and she can still trace back a particular sheep to it earliest resident on her farm or tell me the name of the sheep a fleece came from that I bought 15 years ago. As we walk towards the back pasture, through and small opening in the tree line and across a brook (the brook in Bye Brook Farm) more sheep come running. Michele calls and they gamble over to be greeted. We meet Molunkus, Meryl, Belle, Marvin, a big older wether who is really a golden retriever who will not stop begging to be scratched, too many lambs to name, and Valentine.

Valentine 2016.jpg

Valentine is special to me also. I met her last year when I purchased her hogget (lamb) fleece and there is a sample of those washed locks in your order. Her fleece is beautiful to me, long and soft with some luster and lots of strength. I have flicked and handspun enough of this first fleece to knit a sweater and it is everything I want a sweater to be, rustic, warm, lovely, and of the sheep. I chose Valentine to represent Bye Brook Farm for all of these reasons. Her fleece can be prepared many ways and used in an array of knitwear projects. I spun it in a semi-worsted, semi-woolen manner, which means only slightly aligning the fibers and keeping as much air in the twist as I could to add loft and warmth.

Your yarn has been prepared in a more classically worsted way, with just a hint of woolen spun, but overall with less air and more strength and spun up in a 3-ply dk weight. This yarn will wear very well over time and could be used to make anything from a sweater to a shawl to leg warmers, and more. This is what I love about the strong wool group, its functionality and depth. A closer look at Michele’s flock will quickly reveal a truth about all sheep, regardless of the breed. They are all different. Even with a mostly closed flock like this one, where the genetics run pretty tight, the variation from one sheep/fleece to the next is remarkable. To say that all Romney is coarse and open and only good for rugs and outerwear would be to miss the amazing range and subtlety of this or any breed.  It is a good reminder of the importance of taking time to really look and be open to what each fleece presents.

Michele has worked hard for this range in her flock. And the move to this land made it possible for her to increase her numbers to her current range of 20-30 individuals. About 10 years ago Michele, her husband, and daughter were able to move back to The County and back to family land. Bye Brook Farm is on the site of an old farmstead that has been in Michele’s family since at least 1920. And yes, sheep have been in the picture off and on for most of that time. When Michele moved here the pastures had long gone to scrub and new growth trees with lots of bramble. In a matter of years, while the barn and house were going up, the sheep converted that scrub into what is now a beautiful pasture of rich feed. As with her sheep, Michele can look down the road or across the street and give you a pretty good history of who lived where when and what they did on the land or for work, where they went and who their kids are.

If Michele has a lament about where she lives it is that, for the most part, this is not sheep country. Bangor south has more sheep on the land and a bigger community of shepherds and fiber related folks. Aroostook County is potatoes and more potatoes, so Michele does some driving to market her fleece and find community. She is a co-coordinator of the fleece tent at the Common Ground Country Fair and is well known in Maine’s fiber community for her flock, her knowledge, and her warmth. When I asked her about the economic viability of raising fiber animals she told me if you wanted to raised sheep in a personal way, a way that allowed you to know them as individuals and enjoy their company, there was not much money in it. Her sheep pay for themselves, which she finds amazing. To move beyond that for Michele would require more sheep, a diversified set up selling breeding stock, lots of fleece, meat, etc. This is not the lifestyle she is looking to create. Michele wants to know which lambs are thrifty (want to get up and move, nurse well and are sturdy) and who has the best personality or quirky behavior. If she could not look at any sheep on her land and tell you just who its great-great grandparents were there would be little point.

When speaking of her farm and her life with these Romney sheep Michele has this to say:
“I like where this has taken me, where it has brought me. As a crafter, testing my ability to handle situations with these sheep. Doing what needs to be done somehow. I cannot see myself without sheep, at least some sheep. But it ties you in the winter, you just can’t go anywhere together”
Would you do it again?

“Yes totally! Armed with what I know now and great mentors, and I have a book, “How to Raise Sheep the Modern Way” by Paula Simmons. “The bible-lips to God’s ears.”
Hard winters and hard choices aside Michele and her flock are an integral part of Northern Maine. This year all of her fleeces where spoken for before shearing.  I helped with shearing at her farm this spring and it was wonderful to bundle the fleece, knowing they were all going to people who appreciated this fiber and this place.

We finished our talk and our strawberry rhubarb pie (did I mention the pie) and headed to the truck. The shadows had changed with the sun and now there was shade on the northeast side of the barn. In it lay a number of snoozing sheep, lambs next to or on top of their mamas, all looking contented and happily oblivious to just how good their life is.