Last year while skirting fleece, Heidi listened to Fibershed by Rebecca Burgess. She was thrilled to learn about the fibershed movement to create locally based fiber systems to connect and educate how we clothe ourselves with caring for the environment. But this wasn’t a sudden revelation for this local wool producer. Ever since learning about global warming in middle school, she has tried to make choices and live in a way that is sustainable and healing for the environment. While it started with picking up trash and recycling as a young girl, the effects of climate change and the need for a thriving ecosystem for future generations has influenced many of her life decisions and continues to drive her family’s daily decisions now. “Farming in a sustainable and responsible manner that produces a local product is what we are excited about” says Heidi.
Heidi attended Eastern Mennonite University where environmental stewardship, sustainable living and social justice were culturally embedded in the educational process. During college she married and she and her husband Jonathan moved to Philadelphia for a year while she did an internship. While there, they found that instead of an active social life, they preferred to spend their evenings quietly, with her knitting and him carving wooden spoons. Rather than stay in Philadelphia, they decided to return to their hometown of Harrisonburg to live and farm. “We are not city folk!” laughs Heidi, “Instead, we’ve always had the desire to learn the skills to be self-sustaining: growing our own food, making our own shelter, and making our own clothes.”
After moving back to Harrisonburg, Heidi continued to do social work but also apprenticed with a local fiber artist who raised sheep, angora goats and llamas. During the apprenticeship, Heidi tended the animals and learned to spin and weave. She learned how to blade shear from Kevin Ford at a class he taught at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. She briefly owned a yarn shop in Harrisonburg, and worked for a yarn dyer. Through these experiences, she learned about the fiber/yarn community and fiber quality. The years passed while she continued to juggle her social work career with her love of fiber. Along came two children.
Heidi and her family fulfilled their dream of farm ownership in 2010 when they purchased 11 acres outside of Harrisonburg. Simple Hill Farm life started in earnest 2012 when Heidi and her family moved onto the farm after Jonathan finished building their house. Once on the farm, their first foray into raising sheep was a small flock of meat sheep. The flock was small and they had some tough lambing seasons but they gained experience. With demanding jobs in addition to caring for the farm, time was scarce so they decided to sell the flock in 2017. A year later, after Heidi’s full time job at the time ended, eleven merino sheep were purchased from Martha Polkey of Black Sheep Farm. Heidi is now working full time on the farm and the flock has grown to 27 sheep.
When asked why she raises fiber animals, Heidi said “I have always loved animals and am fascinated by the ground up (literally–the dirt up) process of creating with fiber. I am happiest when I work outdoors. Thus fiber farming fits perfectly with my interests! I love the feel of natural fiber. I chose Merino sheep because they are a fine wool breed with fiber that is wearable close to the skin and is “squishy” soft. Wool is breathable, wicks moisture and is warm when wet. It is also odor resistant.” What has surprised her the most about raising fiber animals is how much she loves it but she notes “there’s always so much to learn and do – in a good way.” She views her biggest challenge as trying to make a financially viable business from her love of wool.
When asked what she is most proud of, Heidi responded “I am proud of our fields and our flock! The flock is turning grass into amazing wool and returning nutrients to the soil to grow more grass! It’s a fascinating cycle that with proper grazing management will pull carbon out of the air and turn it into food for the animals that graze it!
We focus on grass farming and what is best for the soil when we make management decisions. If you have good grass and soil, you’ll get good fiber.” A recent Natural Resource Conservation Service assessment of Simple Hill Farms’ pasture conditions gave the farm one of the highest scores – an encouraging confirmation that they are doing the right thing.
Simple Hill Farm takes a holistic approach to farm life and includes a vegetable garden, a newly-planted orchard and free range chickens. “This spring and summer I will be focusing on a dye plant garden. We have been gardening and starting most of our plants from seed for the last 20 years. This year, our garden will increase with even more flowers to bring beautiful dye colors to the wool growing just past the fence!”
In the 20 years since she and her husband first decided to farm, it’s been quite a journey. All those learning experiences along the way have come together to bring them to where they are now – living a good life at Simple Hill Farm. To learn more about the farm, or to find Heidi’s wool products, visit SimpleHillFarm.com or follow the farm on Instagram. You can also find her beautiful wool yarns at Rocktown Yarn, a yarn store in Harrisonburg, Virginia.