|Marty Elkin and MaryAnn Haxton’s new Tesseract fiber arts building. Photo courtesy of A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm.|
By Joyce White
A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner, Maine, takes its name from Madeline L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time, which, said co-owner Marty Elkin, was influenced by the emerging knowledge of quantum theory. L’Engle used the quantum term tesseract to move characters into another dimension, a sort of time warp.
Tesseract is an apt name for the new fiber arts building at A Wrinkle in Thyme. Elkin and her partner, MaryAnn Haxton, use traditional methods to raise sheep for wool. Then they leap to the present, using modern, solar thermal energy to heat the building and state-of-the-art equipment to card wool into roving or batts for spinning.
Elkin and Haxton began working the 30-acre farm in 1997 as novices with a few chickens. Four sheep and Bubba the draft horse followed. Now they have 30 sheep, laying hens, Bubba, two cats and a border collie who is being trained to herd sheep.
The sheep produce some 250 pounds of wool a year, Elkin said. “In the past three years, the fiber business has exploded.” Because it was taking up too much of their living space, they needed a building dedicated to fiber processing.
They learned about grants that might help finance that venture at a workshop sponsored by Western Mountains Alliance, where they met “an awesome business counselor [Rose Creps] from the Small Business Development Center (SBDC)” who encouraged them to apply for the Maine Farms for the Future grant program. This counselor provides ongoing help with the financial planning and monitoring necessary for a successful business venture.
“Many connections funneled us toward Farms for the Future,” Haxton said, but before applying for Phase 1, they took the prerequisite RC&D (Rural Conservation Development) course “Tilling the Soil of Opportunity,” which helped create their business plan for maple syrup production.
The business plan was part of the learning process, Haxton said, “a map of what to do to get where you want to go” that included specific goals. When they decided they needed the farm to pay for itself, they applied for the Farms for the Future Grant. Phase 1 required developing another business plan to determine which option would most likely increase farm income. This plan was approved for Phase 1 of the Maine Department of Agriculture Farms for the Future program. “If they decide the plan is doable, you get a second, Phase 2 grant to implement the plan.” For Phase 2, Elkin and Haxton selected a financial expert and a sheep management expert to advise the farmers, and architect Kate Chesley to design new buildings.
To help them improve fleece quality and learn about breeding sheep, they chose Anne Gass, an expert in flock development from 35 years of raising sheep. “She shared many of her experiences and went with us to look for a ram with top quality genetics,” Haxton said. Since they also plan to sell some lambs for meat, extra leg and loin mass are desirable. “As the lambs grew, she helped us learn how to decide which lambs to keep and which to sell.”
Sheep nutrition, another part of the plan, led to the second part of the program: a pole barn designed by Chesley. “The pole barn is designed so we can maintain cleaner fleeces when we feed grain and hay. As our flock increased, our 6-acre pasture wasn’t enough.” To increase pasture and options for rotational grazing, they cleared land that had been in pasture years earlier. High tensile fencing to protect the flock from predators and efficient summer and winter watering systems were funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This spring the new field will be reseeded and manured.
Phase 2, then, includes the Tesseract Fiber Building including relocating the sugar house; the pole barn; pasture improvement; and flock development.
A grant from Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) funded a solar thermal system to heat water to wash wool and for radiant heat in the floor. Propane backs up the system on cloudy winter days.
Three experts guided and critiqued the farmers’ grant writing. “Everything we’ve learned and experienced through the years is coming back to help us. Farms for the Future requires that we invest our own money and skills; it’s a matching grant,” Haxton said. They used as much local labor and material as possible and had a lot of volunteer help.
A new Fiber Alliance – local fiber enthusiasts – invested some money in the project for new equipment to card and pick wool. In return, Alliance members can use the equipment to process fleece from their own animals.
“Many people like to process wool from their own animals and have difficulty finding a place that will process individual fleeces. Here, we usually put the sheep’s picture and name on sale tags attached to wool and woolen items,” Elkin said. The Farm Store at the front of the Tesseract Building displays needle felting kits, felted garments, knitted hats and mittens, wool rovings and a wide variety of yarn, nearly all from their own animals and hand dyed at the farm; and some lovely creations made by Fiber Alliance or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members. Several members of the local fiber community can also display items for sale on consignment.
The Tesseract houses a learning center where groups gather to learn and enjoy fiber projects, such as knitting and needle felting. The center area has two washers and a fully equipped dye kitchen. A colorful display of dyes catches the eye, as does a gas stove and double sink. A new Patrick Green Supercarder and a Fancy Kitty Picker process clean wool into roving for hand spinners. The farmers will continue to send some fiber to local mills to be spun into yarn.
This farm success story is a result of acquired knowledge, hard work, inventiveness, community spirit and a lot of help and cooperation from several agencies that promote farming in Maine.
Contact: www.awrinkleinthymefarm.com; 207-212-4058