Sheep, wool, and local farms

A trip to Rhinebeck, NY for the Sheep and Wool Festival, and some resources to help you better understand local agriculture and produce.

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Handmade, natural, self-raised, organic: these are labels to which the environmentally-conscious consumer flocks, and qualities about which both local farmers and mainstream retailers boast. When we see these words we imagine small families in the countryside, tending to their farms with a heightened sense of harmony with the earth, their animals, and the environment. But what does organic, self-raised, natural, actually look like, and where are these local farms?

A few weeks ago I went to the Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, New York, where I walked through hundreds of booths featuring wool-spinners selling their products and local farmers displaying their sheep, goats, alpacas, and llamas. All around me were city transplants bewitched by nostalgic memories of growing up on the farm, and native city dwellers entranced by the concept of people who actually live on a farm and have a close relationship with their animals and their land while strolling under the fantastic autumn colors, clear sky, and fresh air. Alongside these vendors and sheep stalls were food trucks selling grass-fed, organic, and local lamb meat coming from their own farms and their own lambs. There were sheep-dog herding demonstrations, and sheep-shearing demonstrations – examples of animals fulfilling their purpose and their humans living alongside them in harmony with the earth and its other animals.

The festival was a firsthand experience of what our local farmers look like. This can seem so far away from our lives here in New York City. But by becoming more aware of where our local food, wool, cheese, and other local farm-raised animal products come from, we can become inspired to be more conscious of the products that we consume, and our role in sustainability initiatives.

There are many ways we can learn more about our local farmers, and many opportunities to visit and support local farms. One of the best ways to learn is to visit farms and see our local farmers firsthand. Among the vendors at the festival was Sprout Creek Farm, a farm that offers educational programs and camps for kids, and invites the public to visit and tour the farm. Another local farm, Valley Shepherd in New Jersey, offers weekly tours of their farm and operates a farm outlet in Park Slope where you can purchase products that come straight from their farm.

A great way to support local farms is to join a CSA, or to visit greenmarkets in your area. NYCCSA offers a comprehensive list of CSAs in New York, JustFood answers all your CSA questions, and GrowNYC  helps you find your local greenmarket and offers many resources about local farmers.