Anna Hunter admits when they bought their 140-acre property in Ste that she and husband Luke Palka were novices in agriculture. Five years ago Genevieve, Man.
Located on the edge of Manitoba’s boreal plains, the property is a complex mixture of poplar, spruce and pine trees, open pastureland, and a creek-including wetland. The family land is shared by a number of animals and birds.
“That is why we chose this land. We ‘re not trying to force ourselves at the base of the land, but working within it, “said Hunter. “We decided that we wanted to live in a rural area, grow our own crops, and grow our own meat.”
She said she was raised in Calgary and Palka comes from Winnipeg. They met in Halifax, then reconnected and married in Vancouver where they gave birth to their sons Bohdan, 10, and Josh, 8. For six years, Hunter and a wife ran a Vancouver-based company named Baad Anna’s Yarn Store, but the couple didn’t want to raise their children in a city so they began searching for a rural property not too far from Winnipeg. Palka runs a handling company of fine art and even does custom carpentry. The name for their farm emerged from a running joke that Hunter and Palka love doing things the hard way or long way.
Hunter, whose job title is “shepherdess” on her business card, decided she wanted to create a flock of sheep and considered the Shetland breed ideally suited for grazing on their land.
“They are a heritage breed and hardy foragers.”
She noted that they also produce fleece in 11 distinct natural shades. “It’s really stunning.”
They introduced a couple of Merino crossbred sheep to their flock, which now stands at 45, as well as a llama-alpaca cross. The couple also raises laying hens and meat chickens, and in previous years have had heritage breed pigs. They are rehabilitating 10 hectares of pasture land that once housed cattle and horses. Depending on environmental conditions, they use electric mobile fencing to shift their flock into a new grazing area every two or three days.
Hunter said they’re going to sell some of the rams and cut down the flock to 30 to 35 animals later this year, sell some of the meat and retain some for their own use.
She said she was trying to adopt a 100-mile yarn sourcing policy for her Vancouver store but soon found that there were no large-scale wool mills in that geographic area, with the nearest being in Alberta. Despite of this, there was a waiting period of 18 to 24 months to get fleece processed and the large mills only received orders of over 40 pounds of fleece.
“I realized that there is an opportunity here, and I took the idea and ran with it.”
She and Palka toured Belfast Mini Mills on Prince Edward Island, making small-scale fleece and fiber processing equipment. Hunter had thought she would have to build a new building to house the machinery, but she could fit it in their workshop. For the past two years, she has been processing the fleece and fleece of her own flock supplied by her customers, including llama, alpaca, and bison
“We can process any kind of animal-based fibre.”
Minimum fleece weight is 3 lb. So, it’s attractive for small flock men. Hunter offers finished roving and batting products, double or triple chunky weight and fingering, and single ply Lopi style yarn.
Normally, she buys around 1,000 lb. With fleece from other sheep owners that she sells under the Long Way Homestead mark to turn into yarns.
Yet one of Hunter’s visions was realized — that of growing plants she could use to produce natural coloring for her yarn.
“Natural dying was a priority. I had to look at what types of dye plants we could grow.”
This year she has three small gardens where madder, cosmos, marigolds, and coreopsis are among the plants she will dry and use to create a range of naturally coloured colours. She also harvests local wildflowers for colours, such as goldenrod, yarrow and tansy.
Hunter is one of 25 members of Manitoba’s Pembina Fibreshed, who experiment with Japanese indigo cultivation to create the fairly unusual dark blue shade called indigo.
She said her former Vancouver business partner taught her how to process blossoms and plant roots to create natural colours. She transmits her information through small group tours and seminars that are held on her farm.
“I hope to expand my dye garden operation at some point.”
These small-scale activities, usually held outdoors, are a response to restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Hunter said, she and Palka opened their farm for an annual shearing festival in April in previous years and had more than 200 people attending.
Hunter said being able to give small group tours has allowed her to share her knowledge of wool making and natural dying techniques with those interested in spinning , weaving, knitting, crocheting and felting. Participants can book a tour via the Website of the Long Way Homestead.
“It’s definitely helped with the income loss from the cancellation of large events.”
Her plans to attend major fiber festivals in Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg have been postponed due to COVID-19 but she has converted a shipping container into a small shop on her farm and this summer is taking part in several farmers ‘ markets. She also markets her wool online, and a Winnipeg wool shop, Wolseley Wool.
Because of the pandemic, people spend more time at or near their homes, they are gradually trying their hands on crafts such as fiber arts, and demand for fleece processing has not plummeted over the past five months.
“It’s hard to know what opportunities the future will hold,” Hunter said.