Taking a rare opportunity
The owners of a local farm are using dual purpose sheep for a dual purpose.
Will Churchill and Fred Stowell are raising a heritage breed of sheep – Leicester Longwools – as well as Angora goats at their Underhill Farm in Frankstown Township.
Churchill, a retired elementary school teacher, and Stowell, a Hollidaysburg barber, are selling the yarns produced from their animals and hope the proceeds from those sales will help to save and retain this breed of sheep in the United States.
The Leicester Longwool is listed as critically rare by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, with fewer than 200 annual North American registrations and an estimated global population of less than 2,000.
Churchill and Stowell moved to the farm in 1985 and later purchased it from Stowell’s family.
About a dozen years ago, they started raising the Angora goats and Corriedale sheep, which they obtained from Stowell’s father and brother.
A few years later, the Corriedale sheep started dying, and in 2006 Churchill and Stowell went to a wool and sheep festival in Maryland where they met Elaine Shirley, president of the Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association.
They were approved to purchase a flock of Leicester Longwools.
“When we looked at this line, it reminded me of the sheep my father had. The more we heard about them, the more it seemed it was where we wanted to go. They seemed like a perfect fit,” Stowell said.
“The goats were here, but we needed sheep. We got the sheep and said let’s see what happens. The Angora and Leicester Longwool fibers are perfect matches,” Churchill said.
Shirley is pleased with the work being done by Churchill and Stowell.
“They are a rare breed, and every breeder is important. Our numbers are not very great. They are in the low numbers in the United States. To have breeders like Fred and William helps that population and the future of the breed,” Shirley said. “The goal for us is to see this breed come back in numbers so it is not precarious. There is a big push to get the numbers big enough so its future is secure.”
The Leicester Longwools are known for their long, extremely lustrous fleece, Churchill said.
“We combine Leicester Longwool wool with mohair, which comes from the Angora goats,” Stowell said.
“You can make socks, sweaters and scarves from it. It is an elegant fiber and is very strong and long lasting,” Churchill said.
The wool and mohair is sent to five mills across the United States where it is made into yarn.
“We specify the type of yarn that we want,” Churchill said.
“Some is 100 percent wool and some is 100 percent mohair from the goats. The mills do what we request,” Stowell said.
“We get it in skeins, which are already measured. We wash the skeins when they come back to us five or six times, and they are hand-dyed,” Churchill said. “We have labels made and wrap them, and they are ready for sale.”
Underhill Farm’s primary customers are knitters and crafters. Churchill and Stowell take their products to various farmers markets throughout the area.
Deb Ridgeway of Cassville met them at a Huntingdon County farmers market.
“I think it’s one of the most superior yarns I’ve worked with. The colors are subtle. A lot of the earth tones are nice,” Ridgeway said. “If you want a high-quality product that is made locally, this is the yarn to get.”
Underhill Farm products are sold locally at Green Home Goods in Altoona, Stitch Your Art Out in Pine Grove Mills and Grove’s Office Supplies in Huntingdon.
“It is wonderful yarn. It is nice to have yarn from a local supplier. Their yarns are absolutely beautiful and high quality, and you can make gorgeous things,” said Stitch Your Art Out co-owner Cynthia Spencer, who made a shawl from 85 percent wool and 15 percent mohair yarn.
“My clientele are interested in products that are local and are eco-friendly or 100 percent natural. I would say it is of the highest quality. It is all natural and top-of-the-line,” said Lee Anne Ehredt, owner of Green Home Goods.
Churchill and Stowell said their sales have increased every year but haven’t had a lot of success with online sales.
“I think the yarn has to be touched to be bought. You need to see the yarn in the sun,” Churchill said.
Churchill and Stowell feel good when they receive positive feedback from their customers.
“It is nice when women show me what they have made, things like sweaters and hats. That is great to see. They are so proud. Women say they are thrilled to be able to buy such a beautiful yarn and make something that is beautiful. That makes me feel good,” Churchill said.
The men are optimistic about the future of their business.
“If we can keep selling yarn, we can increase our flock. The more successful we are selling yarn, the greater chance we have to increase our flock and the number of Leicester Longwools in the United States,” Churchill said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.