By Holly J. Coley
How it’s made: Buckwheat Bridge Angoras
The farm taking sustainability to a new level
Greenwashing comes in many forms. Some are obvious, like a “natural”-labeled cleaner containing toxic ingredients. Others are trickier to spot, like products that claim to be made on-farm, locally or locally sourced. We pick up a soap or a sweater that reads “handmade,” and a number of idyllic pictures come to mind: someone standing over a pot of boiling lye or painstakingly shearing sheep after sheep. But “handmade” doesn’t mean sourced locally, and “local” can mean a number of things depending on the item. It’s a game of words with an evolving industry still in the process of being regulated. For motivated consumers, finding those who produce what they advertise can be daunting. Fortunately, we know of one farm that’s meeting the challenge—fighting back, complete with a trademark in hand, to show their customers that when it comes to sustainable agriculture, they mean business.
Buckwheat Bridge Angoras, a fiber farm based in Gallatin, NY, is owned by Sara Healy and her business partner. They started it 20 years ago, and considering that it once housed only four sheep to produce wool for her knitting, its growth is rather extraordinary. Depending on the time of year, more than 200 Cormo and fine-wool sheep and Angora goats call it home. With a small team of workers, the farm produces over 1,000 pounds of wool annually, as well as 600 pounds of mohair, all of which is processed in the farm’s mini-mill powered by wind and solar energy. Yarn and roving are made on the premises, as well as dyed locks. Raw and washed fleece is also available. In addition, they farm 100 acres of hay. Every product made can be tracked back to an animal living on the farm. Livestock has 24-hour access to pasture and are fed whole grains grown at another farm less than 10 miles away. Advertising and outreach are done digitally to further lessen its carbon footprint. It’s a sustainable, environmentally ethical, all-encompassing operation.
When I first meet Sara, I think we are just going to talk about sheep for 30 minutes. Two-plus hours later, we will have covered everything from the difficulty of processing fine wool to the importance of not only supporting local makers but the farms that provide the materials for their creations. She won’t say so, but Sara is sort of a pioneer when it comes to sustainable farming. The former registered nurse grew up in Dobbs Ferry, which seems just as far from country living as you can get, but when she was a child, “It wasn’t like it is now,” she explains. “It was a pretty rural place. There was a farm on the street behind me that still milked cows.”
An avid knitter, it was a skill she learned by the age of five, courtesy of her mother, to encourage a favored broken arm. Between that, her neighbors and the periodic trips to other farms where she could feed horses or find a pond where ducks could be fed, a space grew in her heart for the natural world. As Westchester County further developed and Dobbs Ferry became more populated, she sought to move to an area where the land wasn’t overrun by strip malls and high-rises. In 1990, she began looking for properties further upstate that retained their country backdrop. The plan was just to have enough land where she could house a few sheep to harvest their wool for her knitting projects. Years prior, she had learned to spin. “I really enjoy that whole process of taking the fleece raw, working with it and developing a garment,” she says.
Initially, her focus was on gathering the wool and making items like sweaters for herself, family and friends. But as more animals came, she started attending fiber shows, hoping to find others who would work with and appreciate the fine wool her animals produced. She also was becoming increasingly interested in educating the public about the importance of knowing where and by what process our most commonly used items are made. Mittens, for example, don’t just magically appear from thin air. Neither does a package of beef “will” itself to its place in a supermarket. “How many people can make the connection that the particular thing that they are consuming came from an agricultural process [or] came from a farm; that people actually produced the item, either with animals as the origin or field crops?” she points out. “To this day, that’s my motivation—to reintroduce the connection to agriculture in our everyday lives that’s been lost as we became industrialized in our culture.”
Sara became more involved and known within the community by hand spinners and others interested in using sheep fiber. By 1998, the farm had become incorporated, and the quantity of raw material it produced was more than could be done by hand. Unlike medium, long or coarse wool (which can handle being placed in most commercial equipment), fine wool is more delicate and requires a certain amount of extra care during processing. “It was really a challenge at that time to find a processer who could really do a good job,” recalls Sara. When she and her partner made the decision to purchase a larger piece of farm land, she began looking into acquiring equipment for a mini-mill. Wanting to add to the sustainability and efficiency of the operation, they decided to use solar energy, as “it would have been a larger use of energy” if more traditional sources had been chosen. Being that this all happened in 2001, it was a business choice somewhat ahead of its time. Today, the farm’s mill not only uses solar (84 solar panels that produce 10 kilowatt of power, to be specific) but also an 11 kilowatt wind turbine to fuel its production. It should also be noted that the power used does not exceed power consumed in processing fiber in the mill. Sara is glad to see other farmers following a similar path in using environmentally responsible energy. “People who work with the land, be it farmers that grow crops or people who grow livestock, are—for the most part—conscientious stewards of the land, and alternative energy is a natural step in this process. Farmers, in general, are very self-sufficient people,” she muses. “Alternative energy and power generation is part of that social trait.”
Of course, not everything put out as farm-made is actually is generated on a farm. As alluded to in the opening of this article, there are some who rely on misleading tactics to attract consumers who want to participate in farm culture. It’s a practice that’s hurtful to farmers like Sara who strive to do everything “in house” while also keeping things sustainable. That’s why in 2012 Buckwheat Bridge Angoras trademarked their goods as Complete Farm Products, to let customers know that whatever they purchased from them was truly made by them. “That trademark developed out of a frustration that I still feel today,” says Sara, referring to people who sell misleadingly labeled products. We discuss the temptation of marketing what she refers to as the “farm experience” to consumers and the various motivations some may have in doing so. In terms of fiber, it’s cheaper to purchase materials from yarn warehouses that often source from third-world countries, dye the yarn or roving and mark it as one’s own farm-made product. It’s a process referred to as “buying and dyeing.” While financially it may seem smart and less work intensive as farming the fiber, it contributes to the misunderstanding by the consumer of where that product really came from. It also unwittingly supports unfair labor practices overseas and non-eco-friendly operations, and negatively effects our economy and employers, like Buckwheat Bridge Angoras, who are determined to pay their staff a livable wage. To be fair, Sara pays her team well above that. She recognizes that this is something consumers don’t always consider and that both customers and makers have to make choices that work best for them. But for those who feel passionate about ethical fashion and stimulating the local economy, the trademark serves as a distinction from others in the marketplace, as well as a reassurance of quality, sustainability and ethics. “Somewhere along the line you find a customer base that understands what you’re trying to do, appreciates it and is willing to support it with their purchasing power,” she says. “I really feel there’s a growing interest in that, and as time goes on, more people will get that.”
Buckwheat Bridge Angoras will be taking part in the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck on October 15 and 16. Their entire line of products will be available for purchase, and yes, you’ll have a chance to meet Sara. If you would like to know about the farm, its animals and their production process, please visit www.bwbagoats.com.