Lambs Run Farm
Only a shor t sprint f rom the Bay of Fundy, Lambs Run Farm
continues a 400 year old farming tradition with a bounce!
The winter of 2013-14 is perhaps best described in one word: wacky! While some folks in Georgia were aching for a snow blower and studded tires, others in Alaska were wearing flip-flops and t-shirts. The Weather Channel became more popular than Game of Thrones as people kvetched about everything from the Snowpocalypse to the Pineapple Express. In early April, spring was still barely a rumor, and a hushed one at that in Nova Scotia. A few days before my arrival in the Annapolis Valley, a fertile area in the west of Nova Scotia, bordering the Bay of Fundy, a storm passed through the land snapping power lines, flipping trucks, and leaving thousands of homes in the dark. Even the MV Highlanders, a 654-foot vessel that travels regularly between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, was temporarily stranded with its 800 passengers, until the winds abated and the twelve-foot-thick ice blocks began to shift.
I had come to the village of Canning, Nova Scotia, to interview farmer and fiber artist Marilyn Rand, expecting to leave with pictures of budding trees and lambs bouncing like popcorn over newly green pastures. Instead, as Marilyn and I struggle to pull on our boots and winter coats before heading to her barn, she turns and asks if I would like to borrow a pair of ski poles to steady myself across the ice.
“It’s been a long winter,” she says with a sigh. “One of the longest I can ever remember.”
I decline, because I foolishly believe I won’t need them and because I am not sure I can maneuver both ski poles and a large camera with just two hands. Not surprisingly (in retrospect), less than fifty paces outside the back door I misstep and, as gravity destroys any hint of athleticism, much less grace, I hit the ground with a cold-cushioned thwump!
Marilyn turns around and looks at me without the slightest indication of an “I told you so” in her eyes. I shout, “Don’t worry, the camera’s fine!”
But my tiny tumble was not without an audience: the sheep, llamas, goats, and even the dog have all borne witness to my graceless fall, and before I can finish brushing off the snow, Marilyn steps back a few paces and hands me one of her ski poles.
“All you really need is just one,” she says with a gentle smile. Without argument I accept. We walk the remaining fifty yards without incident.
The most recent storm, coupled with the months of snowfall leading up to it, has confined the animals to a relatively small perimeter around the barn. As soon as we are clear of the deep snow, a tangle of lambs charges us. They are all of mixed parentage and Marilyn begins reciting their lineage: a Romney this crossed with a Cotswold that. The one by the hay feeder has a little bit of
Border Leicester, and another one whose father is standing by the brown one is related to the big ewe standing in the doorway ... and before she can finish each one’s unique genealogy she just shrugs and says, “It’s really just a spinner’s flock. I like taking different breeds and crossing them to see what kind of fiber they produce. That’s the fun of it. There’s a purpose for every fiber.”
Marilyn has worked with natural fibers her entire life. She spins. She knits. She weaves. She felts. She even makes the most extraordinary paintings, which I don’t realize are made from strips of wool until I examine them more closely. But what Marilyn makes the most of – thousands of them, in fact – is balls! And strange as it sounds, balls have changed her life.
A few years back Marilyn was at a local farmer’s market selling her handspun yarn and other wooly creations (she is a master needle-felter, as well), when a woman bought a package of Marilyn’s brightly felted wool dryer balls.
For those who remember the days when tossing a sneaker in the dryer along with your winter down jacket was recommended to prevent feather clumping, dryer balls work under a similar theory except they do more than just de-clump down. Dryer balls actually help clothes dry faster as the balls (three is the recommended number) ricochet from side to side, absorbing moisture. Dryer balls not only make
your clothes bounce: they also save energy.
Apparently, the woman took home her package of brand new balls and was so pleased with the results she convinced her employer to buy some – hundreds of them! The woman worked at Wheaton’s, a large kitchen and home furnishings chain in Canada, and after several months of test marketing, Wheaton’s placed a standing order with Marilyn for three hundred balls a month. (A set of three balls retails for Can.$19.95.)
Unlike many people with a spinner’s flock who focus on length, or color, or fineness, or whatever characteristics suit their handspinning desires, Marilyn doesn’t worry about coarse, kempy fleeces. “Wool always felts, even bad wool. And if it’s really bad, then I just put it inside a dryer ball so no one sees it.”
The rush in dryer balls has meant that Marilyn is now making more balls than ever although, she admits, she’s been making them for as long as she’s had sheep. But the commercial-size order has given her the financial freedom to focus on her farm and her fiber arts, two passions that are inextricably entwined.
Marilyn’s motley flock has stomped the snow and ice into a layer of muddy slush and we decide to relinquish our poles, leaning them upright against the side of the barn. Marilyn reaches into her pocket and produces two bottles of milk for a pair of lambs that have done their utmost to trip us since we entered the pasture. She hands me a bottle and both babies instantly muckle down on the nipples, sucking and slurping, and all but yanking the bottles right out of our hands.
It’s amazing how much strength a ten-pound baby can have in a pair of determined lips.
Marilyn has always had animals, even during childhood when her father ran a filling station and the family lived in the back. “We always had a cow, some chickens, and a few sheep. That’s how people in this area survived. Everyone farmed.”
Except, everyone didn’t survive – at least not in the beginning.
The first Europeans to settle in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and parts of eastern Maine were the French colonists known as Acadians. When they arrived in the 1600s, they began working with the Mi’kmaq, a First Nations
... the Acadians were known as déficheurs d’eau (water pioneers), to distinguish them from other colonists in North America
who created farmland by clearing the forest.
semi-nomadic people who had lived in the Canadian Maritimes for 11,000 years. The Acadians also skirmished with the Mi’kmaq and oftentimes married them. But when Great Britain ultimately gained control of Acadia in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, the neighborhood changed.
Acadians were allowed to keep their land, providing they signed an unconditional oath of allegiance to Great Britain. For some, vowing loyalty to Britain wasn’t an option, and forty-five years after the treaty was signed, the British got fed up with their unruly ways and embarked on The Great Upheaval, The Grand Expulsion, or Le Grand Dérangement, a program of ethnic cleansing in which some 11,500 Acadians were deported to the Thirteen Colonies and some all the way back to France.
Had it not been for the Acadians, “there would be water right up to my front doorstep,” says Marilyn. The Acadians had built a massive system of dykes along the Bay of Fundy, damming the brackish marshlands using a method that would eventually sift out the salt and create endless acres of arable land over a three-year span. The system was a great success, no doubt because it had already been implemented in France and other parts of Europe. In fact, the Acadians were known as déficheurs d’eau (water pioneers), to distinguish them from other colonists in North America who created farmland by clearing the forest.
In 1760, just a few years after the Acadians had bid farewell to their homeland, the Charming Molly set sail from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Nova Scotia with thirtyone men, two women, and twelve children on board. They were the first of approxi-
mately two thousand families that would leave New England and put down roots in the Canadian Maritimes. Because of its productive land, the Annapolis Valley was a popular destination and, with the huge migration of planters, the area became known as the “new New England.” The new settlers were called the New England Planters, and Canning, enjoying the fertility of its soil, was originally called Apple Tree Landing.
“My roots go back to the planters from Massachusetts” says Marilyn. “Ask my husband, Marshall, he knows everything about how this area developed. In fact, he’ll even tell you we’re related, distantly.”
Marilyn and Marshall’s, Lambs Run Farm, is actually part of the original land allotment granted to Marshall’s family, an extraordinary legacy to maintain for 250 years. But it wasn’t always sheep and goats roaming their pastures, and certainly not the forebears of Marilyn’s suri llama and its baby. For many years, Marshall’s father raised beef cattle, a rigorous proving ground for any prospective farmer.
When Marshall comes home for lunch and joins Marilyn and me for a big pot of soup that’s been simmering on the stove all morning, he shares a few thoughts about Marilyn and her sheep.
“Lambing is a piece of cake! You just grab hold and flip ’em over and give ’em a shot,” he says, with such conviction as to belie every harrowing tale ever recorded by James Herriot.
“Marshall did 90 percent of all the difficult births,” Marilyn adds. But I have little doubt that Marilyn is quite capable of managing any number of farming challenges on her own. Although she has a soft voice, a calm manner, and a naturally maternal disposition towards seemingly everything, Marilyn also has that rare quality that comes from growing up in a home where things didn’t come easy and children were put to work long before there was time to play.
Marshall comes from similar stock, and as one of nine children, he describes how his mother maintained near perfect order, assigning specific jobs to each child. “Everyone did something. Whether it was clear the table, wash the dishes, or feed the animals, there was never any discussion about whether you wanted to do it: you just did.”
As Marshall gets up from the table to get a second helping of soup from the stove, I ask how he and Marilyn met.
Before he can respond, Marilyn uncharacteristically blurts out, “He liked the way I scooped ice cream!” And they both look at one another and bust
In August, 2013, the first suri llama was born on Marilyn’s farm and she’s been appropriately smitten ever since.
up laughing, no doubt having repeated this line countless times during their forty-two years of marriage.
Sometimes a follow-up question isn’t appropriate, and sometimes that’s where the real story starts. I decide to take a chance. “You liked the way she scooped ice cream?” I ask, placing Marshall squarely on the hot seat.
Now Marshall isn’t exactly shy, but he exudes a certain old-school decorum, even standing by a hot stove with ladle in hand and coveralls smelling faintly of oil. But still, I wasn’t sure if asking about Marilyn’s ice cream scoops was a suitable line of questioning for a fiber editor.
Sensing my discomfort, Marshall pauses for an extra moment or two and then laughs even harder. Apparently, Marilyn’s father eventually sold the filling station and bought The Look Off, a seasonal campground with cabins, hot showers, stunning views of the Bay of Fundy and, of course, an ice cream shop (which operates to this day).
“Our family went from living in town with neighbors all around to one of the highest points in the land. It was a great place to call home, and one of my jobs included working in the ice cream shop,” says Marilyn, sounding a bit wistful. “The Look Off is a popular tourist destination, but the locals go there, too. Marshall really likes ice cream – at least that’s what he told me.” And so after a brief courtship – and no doubt a lot of double-scoop cones – the two got married.
Marilyn and Marshall have spent most of their married life living in the house Marshall built from old barn timber. Even without a pot of soup simmering on the stove or the freshly baked bread warming in the oven, the house is irresistibly cozy. The wood floors are worn with memories, and Marilyn’s artwork decorates much of the wall space that isn’t already occupied by pictures of children and grandchildren. There is something in the atmosphere that quietly acknowledges the many generations that have come and gone on this land. Perhaps it is an undeniable sense of contentment both Marilyn and Marshall seem to exude. “Could you ever imagine living any place else?” I ask. They both shake their heads and admit that life in Canning suits them just fine.
For most of Marilyn’s adult life she has been involved with fiber arts in some form or fashion. When her children were growing up, she bought a Brother knitting machine and went into production, eventually becoming a distributor for Brother. Part of her job included traveling around the Maritimes, training people to use the machine.
“You know, I had never left the country until just a few years ago,” Marilyn says, sensing the news might catch me by surprise, which it does.
“I went all the way to Vermont! Have you been to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival?” And I nod my head, telling her that she needs to return to the States, that we have tons of fiber festivals.
“Of course, I also went to Denmark a few years ago.” And I assume she does not mean Denmark, Maine.
“For sheep?” I ask, wondering if maybe this is where the story really starts.
“Not exactly, I went with a local group of artisans called SEVEN.”
SEVEN is comprised of six visual artists and one poet from the Annapolis Valley. In 2007, the all-women group decided to begin meeting once a month to support each other in their creative endeavors and possibly open their own gallery. It was a great idea, except for the part about opening a gallery.
Apparently, not all gallery owners leap with delight when an artist decides to open his or her own space. Rather than jeopardize their existing relationships, SEVEN decided to put on a few shows instead.
But Pia Skaarer-Nielsen, a fellow fiber artist and SEVEN member, said she would not be available to help with a summer show because she was returning to Denmark, her homeland, for the summer. And that’s how Marilyn Rand found herself in Copenhagen in 2010. SEVEN managed to have forty-nine pieces of artwork packed and shipped to Denmark for three exhibitions.
“It took seven months just to fill out the paperwork,” Marilyn says. And heaven forbid they shipped anything that was for sale, or they would have had to pay huge tariffs at customs.
Marilyn shipped several handbags and a large painting made with silk fusion (yet another fiber art she excels in) and, after the exhibitions, every item was sent back to Canning.
“But then, I had to turn around and ship everything back to Denmark! I sold everything I took, but this time the customer paid the tax, which is 29 percent on wool items.”
Although it has been a few years since SEVEN took the big leap across the pond, Marilyn still has some vivid memories.
“Bicycles! Thousands of bicycles. Everywhere! They have entire parking lots just for bicycles. You see whole families riding bicycles,” said Marilyn. “Was that it? Bicycles?” I ask. “No, not just bicycles. One of the things that really struck me was how much farmland is still intact. There has been so much growth in Annapolis Valley; farms are being chewed up bite by bite. Someone sells a chunk of land by the road, and a house goes up. And then another chunk gets sold, and another house goes up. I could tell the farms in Denmark still had the original buildings and the land was still being cultivated. It reminded me of how things used to be.”
Marshall looks up from his soup and nods, then looks down at his watch.
“Time to go back to work,” he says, stretching his muscled arms back into his winter coat. “You’re not going to include the part about the ice cream scoops are you?”
“Of course not, Marshall,” I quickly reply. “This is strictly about fiber.” And the three of us bust up laughing again, no doubt wishing we all had time to have lingered a little longer.
Still no sign of spring in the pasture at Lambs Run Farm.
Marshall and Marilyn Rand.
A mixed assortment of Marilyn’s dryer balls and hand-dyed hand-spun yarn.
Marilyn’s flock of sheep, goats, and llamas crowd around the barn as we arrive bearing treats.
An Angora ram waiting for Marilyn to come and spring him from his pen, if only it really were
There is no such thing as sucking a bottle slowly when you’re a baby lamb.
No two spinners’ flocks are alike. They come in all shapes and sizes to meet the needs and explore the possibilities of the spinner.