Food and fiber go together like peas and carrots, but we seldom discuss fiber in the same breath as food. Fiber went out of vogue once synthetics came into being in the 1950s.
I had a wonderful conversation today with Francis Chester, founder of Cestari Sheep and Wool Company. Perhaps the finest quality wool and yarns in America are born and milled just a few miles from our farm here in Augusta County, Virginia. He's been doing this for 50 years and has a real passion for natural fiber.
He said that in 1950 the U.S. had 54 million sheep. By 1970, that number was down to 5 million. What happened? Synthetics. Spandex. Nylon. Lycron. Polyester. This is not to demonize or castigate artificial fibers, but I think it's good to point out what a loss this was to agriculture.
When we lament struggling farmers, this is part of the culprit. And once something like this is lost, it's hard to regain. Today, 80 percent of all lamb eaten in the U.S. is imported from New Zealand and Australia. New York City alone eats 28,000 lambs a week. The whole state of Virginia only produces twice that amount--enough to feed NYC for two weeks.
Francis told me growing up in Italy, his family had sheep and vegetables. One day, as a little boy, he went out and saw that something had eaten all their green beans. The next morning his dad came in carrying two rabbits. The culprits.
"I didn't hear you shoot, daddy," said little Francis.
"I didn't. I brought them down with a stone," said his father. Turns out that shepherds grew up learning how to throw stones accurately to kill or chase away predators. They became quite the marksmen. His dad had nailed these two garden marauders between the eyes, a stone apiece. David and Goliath?
As he was telling me this story, I couldn't help but think about the times I've witnessed academics and high tech folks speak condescendingly of farmers as dolts and hillbillies. But some of the most laudable skill I know resides in the hands and wisdom of supposed country bumpkins. Don't sell us country folks short. We know how to do a thing or two. Long after an EMP takes out the power grid; long after smart phones die and self-driving cars run amuck, we'll still be making cheese, milking cows, raising chickens, and cooking on wood fires.
What country skill do you wish you had?