Q&A with Shepherdess Robin Johnston of Elderberry Farm, Ontario, Canada

Many thanks to Nancy Macmillan for this wonderful Q&A with her friend Robin Johnston. We share it this evening on the cusp of Growing Wool and Harvesting Wool because Robin touches on many aspects of keeping livestock and makes some interesting points about having her sheep sheared. Many thanks to Nancy Macmillan for producing this post for WOVEMBER and to Barnyard Studio for the beautiful photos.

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What could be better on a rainy October afternoon than sharing a pot of tea and some homemade scones with a Shepherdess I am honoured to call my friend? The following interview is the result… Robin Johnston’s journey to fulfil her dream of owning sheep. Elderberry Farm is set amongst rolling tree lined hills, in rural Eastern Ontario, Canada.

Q: Robin, what made you decide to start Elderberry Farm? How did you find it? What year did you officially start?

A: I have always wanted to live on a farm and luckily, this one was for sale in our area. We purchased it in September 2001. The name came about because I love all things Elderberry: pies, jam, wine, and that line from Monty Python’s “In Search of the Holy Grail”: Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries.

(YouTube clip for reference.)

Q: I know that you have Llamas and if I remember correctly a goat or two, plus dog/s and cat/s as well. Do you have a variety of sheep breeds on the farm? Could you list them for us?

A: We no longer have any goats although we used to have a few angora goats. We have three llamas that act as guards for our sheep as well as fibre animals. We have about 26 sheep now, ranging from the small Shetland through Shropshire, Cotswold, and Canadian Polwarth. We have only a few pure bred sheep. Most of them are now mixed breeds as it has proven difficult to not only keep the rams where they are supposed to be but to separate the sheep in their own breeding areas.

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Q: You have a full-time job, you are a wife, a mother, and a shepherdess. Is it difficult to juggle all this on a daily basis?

A: I would be able to manage on my own but it would be very difficult. Luckily, with the small population of sheep, daily chores do not take up a lot of time. They total about a half hour each day. However, it is much easier to do with my husband and son. When I work late, my husband takes over. The most demanding times of the year when everyone is enlisted is in the spring for shearing and general clean-up, mid-summer when the hay is made and stored, and early fall where there is another clean-up, hay bedding is added to the shelters, summer water buckets are replaced with heated ones for winter, and worming is done once more.

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Q: I know your son enjoys the benefits of Mom’s hand-knits and makes requests on occasion for certain items. Do you think your son will be interested in continuing in your footsteps or at least taking up the needles at some point?

A: I think he may be interested in farming but not knitting. The thing I am really happy with is that he completely appreciates hand-made items. He is most definitely knit-worthy.

Q: I know your son has learned many wonderful lessons living life on the farm. Would you recommend this way of life for raising a family?

A: I would. It is a bonding experience for a family because we have to work together to get things done. He has learned about birth and death, how to fix fences and take care of machines like tractors. He knows about responsibility and what the consequences might be if he doesn’t follow through. He appreciates the work that goes into basic things like chopping and drying wood for winter heat. I find that he is incredibly compassionate and sensitive. He is the heart of our farm.

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Q: There are many expenses to running a farm. Over the years I have heard many a shepherd mention, that they don’t get much when selling their fleeces. Has this been you experience? Do you see a future when Shepherds will get fair pay for their fleeces? Do you know other Shepherds, who work a second job to augment the farm expenses?

A: If I didn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to afford sheep. I suppose, if I had hundreds of sheep on a hundred or so acres, I might be able to make a living but that living wouldn’t be made by wool. It would be made by meat. I raise my sheep because I love them and I love wool. I am happy if I sell enough fleeces on shearing day to pay for the shearer. From my experience, there are few people who can raise wool sheep without something else to augment their expenses. Like a pension upon retirement.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge since starting Elderberry Farm?

A: Going to work. I love being with my sheep and playing with their wool so much, I find it really difficult some days to go into work. But I have to do so or I wouldn’t be able to afford my sheep.

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Q: Has being a spinner and knitter helped you to choose breeds to add to your flock? Was this a large influence on the breeds you started with?

A: Absolutely. I started off with two Romney and Canadian Polwarth (developed by Shirley Browsky). The Romney improved the Polwarth by opening up the fleeces a bit while maintaining the fineness of the fibre. I was enamoured with the appearance of Shetlands, Jacobs, and the down breeds so had to have a few of those. Luckily, I love spinning their fleeces because their addition to my flock was a little like putting the cart before the horse! One of the things I have learnt is that I like wool with personality. Merino sheep have a great marketing board and fine, soft wool is really nice but I like variety. I love to spin and knit with something a little more coarse or shiny or bouncy… One thing I had to learn to accept was that I didn’t have to own the sheep to spin the fleece; I can buy it from another farmer. This has helped me narrow down what it is I want to have in my backyard.

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Q: You now have your own yarn to sell. Was this one of the things you wanted to undertake when you decided to become a Shepherdess? How have you found the response to your product since its inception?

A: Yes, my yarn. I wish it weren’t such a limited commodity. I had come to the realization that I had more than enough roving to spin so I should start converting some of my fleeces to yarn. I found a great local mill and now she is selling her business. I will have to find a new mill to process my wool into yarn. My sheep and the wool that come from them was something I had always wanted to do for me. I am happy to share what I have. A few of my fleeces get sold on shearing day, which is quite nice. My yarn sold out very quickly. I was surprised and happy. I am not sure if I kept enough for me to use! I do hope I can find someone who will spin the wool into yarn as nicely as Hidden Touch (in Osgoode, Ontario) had done.

Q: Do you have any plans to expand your line of yarn?

A: No. I am at my land-based limit for a healthy flock and I can’t really expand my line of yarn without getting more sheep. That population will have to be maintained, not increased. I do hope, however, to be able to create some yarn each year. I love the ones I have done so I would like to repeat them as much as possible.

Q: I know you are experimenting with dyeing yarn at the moment. Do you get many clients asking you to dye to order your natural yarns, other than myself?

A: There have been a couple of people who have asked and I have certainly done my best. If I had more time, I would do more dyeing. I would love to use natural dyes. But right now, I am very busy fitting in my own knitting and spinning between work and family demands. Maybe when I retire, hey?

Q: I’ve spoken to several yarn producers over the years who have had problems finding a Mill that would produce their wool exactly to their specifications. Have you had problems finding a Mill that will process your yarns to your individual specifications?

A: Hidden Touch in Osgoode, Ontario did a wonderful job producing my yarn. I was very happy with the end product. However, due to family illness, they have to sell and now I will be amongst the others searching for a mill to provide me with the same quality of yarn.

Q: I remember you sharing a very sad story about when you lost most of your flock. Could you share what happened with the readers? I think it would help people that are non-farmers, understand what tragedies really can occur on a farm?

A: It was 2008 or 2009. Everyone with livestock seemed to have been affected. People with much larger flocks than I lost nearly all of their sheep. Whether it was due to the weather conditions that summer or a resistance to Ivermecton, a common wormer, or a combination of the two, I don’t know. People were losing their sheep to some parasite and it took a huge toll on flocks/herds. It was very sad and very expensive. I lost about two-thirds of my flock, many of them new lambs. The vets that I called in had nothing to offer but to change my wormer on an annual basis.

Q: Did it take you long to rebuild your flock?

A: Yes, it did. It took about four years. And the memory of it haunts me every spring.

Q: I remember you telling me about the big wind storm that knocked a few things over. Would you care to share that story with our readers?

A: Our property is normally a windy one but when there are storms, the winds become quite strong when they gust. We often lose roof tiles and some trees when they break. Last summer we had such a storm with winds that picked our sheep’s shelter and flipped it upside-down in the neighbouring paddock. It crushed our fence but luckily not sheep: no one was hurt in this event. Our fence had to be mended and our shed lifted and moved to its previous location but it was still surprisingly well intact. We only had to do a few fixes.

Q: I have read several blogs where fences are big issues for farmers. Have you had occasions when this has been one of the hazards on your farm? How long has it taken to get a runaway back home behind mended fences?

A: When we first started out on our farm, we relied heavily on a farmer neighbour who raised cattle. He taught us a lot but his knowledge was based on cattle. Fencing for bovines does not need to touch the ground so all of our fences were built according to his practices. When we started off with Shetland sheep and angora goats, we were confident in our fences. It turns out that not all goats like heights. Our angoras used to flatten themselves and push themselves under the fence and then run away. The Shetlands followed the example. I can’t remember how long it took to catch them but these were pretty nerve-wracking experiences. I didn’t want a passing car to swerve to miss an escapee and then have an accident as a result. Luckily, our animals were quite well trained with the pink grain bucket. Whenever they saw that, they would usually come, ba-a-a-ing or bleating as they ran. Needless to say, our fences now touch the ground and we have an electrical wire running at about a sheep’s knee level. This has been keeping our animals inside and predators outside.

Q: Have you had much help over the years from other shepherds? Would they be your biggest resource for help, when problems arise or is there another source you’ve found most helpful?

A: I learnt just about everything I know from a retired shepherdess, Shirley Browsky. She was lucky to have been able to travel to Australia to learn first- hand about sheep and raising them. Outside of Shirley, the internet has been the next thing I go to for help. I also have a few sheep books to look through to learn about illnesses and such.

Q: Do you have a funny story to share about the animals?

A: People have this romantic idea of how sheep sound when they ‘talk’. They think of it as this nice, happy b-a-a-a and most of the time it is… although, when I come home from work and my sheep greet me, I like to think they are saying, M-u-u-u-m! But just like people have different voices, so do sheep. I can usually tell which sheep is calling just by their sound. We have one very bossy ewe named Nina (a Shetland x Polwarth). When she calls, everyone listens and does her bidding. Her voice is very strident. We have another ewe, Chloe (a Rambouillet), who has a terrible voice! In fact, one afternoon a man came to my door and asked me if I needed help. “Help?” I queried. “Why, yes”, he said. “I could hear a sheep screaming in your woods so I thought I could help you get her out.” I stepped outside so I could listen to what he had heard because I didn’t think anyone would be in distress. I heard the “screaming’’. I told the man, “Thank you so much for coming to help but that is my sheep Chloe and she’s not stuck; she always sounds like that.” He was very surprised to hear that as she does sound like someone is slowly tearing her limbs from her body.

Q: Have there been many surprises that you never envisioned when you decided to undertake becoming a Shepherdess? What would they be, if any?

A: The biggest surprise is how much I love having sheep. I love how my Shetland wether, Piero gets a pout-on if we don’t go pet him every day. I love the unexpected colours I can get from newborn lambs. I could make a huge list of things I love but that doesn’t really answer the question of surprises.

Q: What happens on the farm when you go on holiday?

A: We are very fortunate to have a farmer neighbour who values escaping to our house and its quiet. She has been relied upon to stay in our house, look after our animals, and make us feel like we are doing her a favour by providing her with quiet and solitude. When it’s just me that goes away for oh, say, a knitting retreat, my husband takes care of everything.

Q: Is anyone else in your family a farmer? What would you say has been your greatest triumph since becoming a Shepherdess?

A: Both my husband’s and my grandparents were farmers. My parents think that I’m nuts wanting to live the way I do as they love living in a city. My greatest triumph has been finding what makes me really happy nearly every day. There are bad events that make me sad like when I lose a sheep I have had for more than a decade or lambs die for a reason unknown but overall, I am wholly content watching and talking to my sheep and playing with their wool. I cannot imagine life without them.

Q: Do you have specific plans for the future of the farm or your yarn line?

A: Nothing specific right now. I am just too busy juggling other things and really, making money from my wool is not a priority. I am most certainly happy to share what I have but my goal has never been to make money or a living from my sheep. So, I guess my big plan would be to continue enjoying my animals and to try new things. Oh, and to find a new mill so I can get some more yarn made.

Q: Are venues such as Wool Shows, Knitting Retreats or Knitting Guilds or the internet helpful spreading the word out about your yarns? Which venue has been most popular when selling your yarns?

A: On Ravelry, there is a group of Canadians who wants to promote locally produced fibres. This group is what pushed me to set up an account on Etsy to sell some of what I have available. That exposure combined with word of mouth from people at knitting groups has been the most helpful.

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Q: You, of course, have the annual shearing to deal with. Was it difficult in the beginning to get a Shearer and does the same Shearer help annually?

A: Yes! It was difficult! Not just to find a shearer but to find one that won’t do second cuts. When a shearer does meat sheep, the wool is not considered so they can cut the wool without any thought to how it’s done, just so long as the sheep looks clean at the end. This same thing cannot be done to wool sheep. Care must be taken to make the best cut possible without going over the same place again. Our first shearer cut the animal and the made all kinds of second cuts. Our next shearer fired us in our second year! She fired us! She said she wasn’t happy with the job she did because our sheep didn’t look clean cut when she was done. Our current shearer has been doing a good job. He is very calm and the sheep are docile in return. Except for one year, he remembers to take care and not make second cuts. He is also very quick so shearing is done in about three hours rather than taking and entire day.

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Q: How have you used the shearing to introduce your fleeces to customers? Have you gained more attendees for shearing day over the years? Does this day find you relieved of many fleeces?

A: I used to use shearing day to invite hand-spinners but when I wanted to make yarn, that meant the more I sold off the hoof, the less I had to use to make yarn. The last three years, I reduced the number of invitations I handed out for shearing day just for that reason.

Q: In closing would it be your opinion that you’re even more passionate now, than when you began your wild adventures into everything WOOL?

A: Most definitely. The more I learn, the more I want to know. The more I play, the more things I imagine doing next. It’s this self-perpetuating circle of excitement. And there are so many breeds of sheep out there to fondle, wash, card, spin, and knit!!

Robin thank you for taking time out of your busy life to share what life is like on a Sheep Farm. I look forward to hearing more of your stories when next we share a cup of tea…


Written by, Nancy Macmillan (NancyKnot on Ravelry): knitter, spinner, designer, and lover of all things WOOL

Words © Nancy Macmillan and images © Barnyard Studio, used here with kind permission, except for the images of spinning and the photo of the barnyard itself, which are © Nancy Macmillan. Thank you for this insight into what it’s like to keep sheep!

This entry was posted by Felicity Ford.

4 thoughts on “Q&A with Shepherdess Robin Johnston of Elderberry Farm, Ontario, Canada

  1. Thank you for this interview…lovely to hear about a kindred spirit whom I share many experiences. Certainly the challenges are the same…fences, mills, finding a good committed shearer that won’t fire you (yes happened to me too and to this day not sure why)..developing products, marketing. Really lots to learn. Lesson for me is that there comes a point that one starts doing it for the love of the sheep and wool…but to continue, a shepherd needs to make the numbers work.

  2. What a wonderful interview, it was very interesting to read about some of the realities of owning sheep, it doesn’t sound an easy life. I know it wasn’t funny but it made me smile to think of the goats wriggling under the fence and then the sheep copying them….The picture of the sheep with her lamb was beautiful and Robin’s son is lovely (what I wouldn’t give to cuddle to that lamb too)…reading about people like Robin certainly makes me want to support smaller producers. I hope she finds a new mill soon, so many links in the chain from the shepherd to the wool I’m knitting that I hadn’t ever considered.

  3. What a great interview! It was nice to meet another shepherd with almost the same situation we have. Very encouraging.

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