by Katie Navarra
“Baa, Baa Black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes sir, three bags full…”
For Tom and Carole Foster, owners of Foster Sheep Farm, in Schuylerville, NY collected “3 Bags Full” of donations to help offset the cost of permanently preserving the family farm. The fundraiser, held in conjunction with Saratoga PLAN, raised $34,000 in donations.
“The farm has been pretty good to us,” Tom said, “We’d just as soon keep it that way. We get a lot of people that drive by here just to see the open space and there are a number of bicyclists and bicycle groups that appreciate the open space too.”
Foster Sheep Farm was permanently conserved with Saratoga PLAN, which stands for Preserving Land and Nature in early 2013. A legally-binding perpetual agreement between Tom and Carole Foster, who own the farm, and Saratoga PLAN, a nonprofit organization, will ensure that the 128-acre property will be available to produce fiber, food, and timber for future generations.
PLAN assumes the responsibility of ensuring the agreement is upheld over time, regardless of who owns it in the future or what crops are grown there and the agreement permits farming, logging and recreational pursuits, but prevents additional residential or commercial development.
Entering a farm into permanent conservation can be costly, $367,000 for Foster Sheep Farm. Funding for the project was provided by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Saratoga County, and private contributions. An additional grant is also being sought from the NYS Conservation Partnership Program to cover some of the transactional costs that Saratoga PLAN incurred.
This was the first time that a farm in Saratoga County had ever been awarded funding from the USDA’s competitive Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The FRPP award totaled $154,000. Saratoga PLAN.
Federal monies covered 50 percent of the costs associated with conservation. Additional donations came via a grant from Saratoga County’s Farmland and Open Space Program, which matched the federal grant with a total of $169,157.
“This is the first easement Saratoga PLAN. has done with federal funds,” Maria Trabka, Executive Director for PLAN, said, “Saratoga PLAN is now eligible to apply for funds on behalf of other farmers in the county who are interested in conserving their farmland.”
A history of family farming
Today, the property known as Foster’s Sheep Farm, was originally a dairy farm founded by Tom’s parents. Both Tom and Carole were raised on dairy farms and when Tom’s parents got out of the business, Tom and Carole took ownership.
“We had a mixture of registered and non-registered Holsteins that we milked,” Tom said, “it was a bit of a challenge to run the farm and work outside.” Nearly 17 years ago, the cows were sold to an Amish family and the farm was void of animals.
Once the cattle were gone, the Fosters missed having animals on the property. “Tom had taken a sheep course when he was in school and really liked it,” Carole explained, “and we decided the sheep would be a good 4-H project for the kids (Abby and Greg).”
The Foster’s bought a few sheep to get started then they began to multiply. The flock swelled to 160 ewes at one time. The first sheep in the flock were meat stock and had a lower quality fiber.
Their daughter Abby, wrote an essay for the Romney Association and won a starter flock of three Romney sheep known for having great spinning fiber. The starter flock contributed to today’s flock of 45 ewes, which is comprised of 1/3 Romney, 1/3 white long wool breeding to the Wensleydale, an old British breed, and 1/3 natural color flock.
The ewes are shorn twice a year and produce an average of eight pounds of wool per sheep per year. A portion of the fleece is sold directly off the sheep to spinners or at shows for individuals who choose to spin their own yarn.
A portion of the wool is dyed on the farm and converted into roving that hand spinners purchase. The balance of the wool is sent to Green Mountain Spinnery to be made into yarn that Carole sells at the Yarn Shop, a full service knitting, spinning and fiber shop that was opened three years ago in the original farm house on the Foster Family Farm.
The yarn shop features yarn from local producers and commercial lines, spinning fiber, knitting needles and supplies, pattern books, spinning wheels and Rigid Heddle Looms from Kromski, hand-made local soaps and yarn, roving and fiber from local farms. “Instruction is a big part of what I do,” Carole explained, “people want to spin, I teach them to spin. People want to make a scarf, I teach them to make a scarf.”
In addition to raising the sheep for their wool, the Foster’s also raise lambs for market. “A majority of the lambs go at Easter,” said Tom, “about 15 percent of the lambs we sell to individuals once the lamb has been raised to a heavier slaughter weight.” The Fosters have tried selling lamb products at local farmers market, but finding a butcher locally that will prepare the meat is difficult and the cost does not make it feasible.