I spent this past weekend among friends at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival, taking in all things sheep and wool. It’s a surprise to most people (including new shepherds) that a number of such celebrations are offered around the country each year. But arguably none is so eagerly anticipated as the Wisconsin festival, which offers something for everyone, from artisans to breeders, foodies to dog enthusiasts, and tractor lovers to rug-hookers!
As in most years, I arrived with my good friend Melissa Wubben of Oak Creek Farm on Friday afternoon ready for some fun! We eagerly checked in to our hotel for the weekend and then headed out to the venue to check in her fleeces. Although I used to show our Peeper Hollow fleeces at this festival, I decided a few years ago that we would stop doing so for a couple of reasons:
1 – The customer base for our fleeces has thankfully grown quite large and typically allows all our fleeces to sell within a relatively short period of time. We no longer need the free advertising that a festival win brings, and our breeding stock customers — new flock owners raising our bloodlines on small but growing farms — can now use that exposure to sell their fleeces. We go to watch and cheer them on in hopes that they, too, will find the success that we now have in fleece sales.
2 – Since we shear the majority of our flock (all the breeding ewes) in January, showing at any of the summer festivals means holding our very best wool in a closet for at least four to six months. In our business, fleeces create income that goes toward feeding hungry lambs or paying for a vet visit when needed. Holding on to our wool makes us unable to access its value exactly when our expenses are greatest — in spring when we have young lambs and, overall, the most sheep of the year. The decision to no longer show our best fleeces freed up hundreds of dollars that we put to use during that very busy — and expensive — season.
After fleece check-in, we began to connect with our many friends who were also attending the event. We always plan on a late dinner both nights that we attend, inviting friends to join us for an evening of conversations involving anything related to sheep and wool. We set the reservation after the end of all the day’s activities so we can include as many people as possible. This year we had a smaller group (six or eight people), and after closing the restaurant each night, many of us continued our conversations in the parking lot before leaving. Some years we have a couple of dozen people — so many that we end up with a room of our own at the restaurant! It is a great opportunity to share what we have learned over the year and to hear what other shepherds are doing, experiencing and learning with their flocks. By the time we fell into bed, our heads were swimming with ideas, keeping us awake until exhaustion finally overtook us.
Saturday brought the Wool Show, where I saw both long-time and recent friends. As fleeces were brought forward for judging, it was amazing how many I recognized as coming from our bloodlines! Time after time, I thought I recognized a fleece and then was pleased, when I looked at the exhibitor’s name, to see the name of a friend and recent breeding stock buyer. And it was doubly wonderful to see so many of them place well within their classes. The classes in which our breeds showed were huge, but these many friends all did quite well, each winning ribbons for at least one of their entries!
Saturday was our second dinner-out night, and the dinner group always changes from one evening to the next as people come and go from the festival. The conversation changes too, understandably, as we each have favorite topics and interests and ways of doing things. It will honestly take a while for me to digest all of the good discussions that took place around those tables. There is a lot to think about and to possibly incorporate into our flock in some way! It is also a great way to meet new people, since friends bring along their friends, and in that way our circles grow.
By the end of the weekend, Melissa and I were both exhausted and happy to head home to our flocks, already looking forward to the same festival next year! If you happen to attend next year and want to join us for dinner, shoot me an email or text, or give me a call (either now or closer to the festival) and we’ll make sure to contact you at the festival next year. We always love to include new people! The more, the merrier — and that makes for great conversation!