Widgets Magazine

Carol Festa of 8 Hands Farm Chats about Modern but Retro Sheep Farming

Q: How did you come to the North Fork? When my husband and I first got married, we were working in Manhattan, and looking for a place to settle down. During our search we ended up taking a bike trip to Shelter Island-I had never really been past exit 60 on the LIE— and I fell in love with the North Fork, for all the reasons people do. That was in the early 90s.  We bought a place in Greenport, where we spent our weekends and vacations.  We did that for quite a while until we ended up settling here permanently in 2004.

Q: How did you get into farming?

Two things inspired us.

First, watching the movie Food Inc.   It really opened our eyes about industrial food and how little people know about where their food comes from today. My husband had always had a love of food—he quit his career early on to go to culinary school, but after a little time working in the restaurant business discovered it wasn’t for him and returned to the financial field.   In the back of his mind though, he still wanted to eventually do something connected to food.

During the movie they interviewed a farmer from Virginia named Joel Salatin.   His philosophy, which is   based on realizing the symbiotic relationship between the soil and the animals, really inspired us. We wanted to know more, so we visited and toured his farm and were very moved; it got us thinking that maybe we could do this.

The other major impetus for us was giving our children a real experience in life. So many kids live in a virtual world through their tech devices. They don’t get the experience of doing things, taking pride in actually seeing something through and having real responsibility where they’re an integral part of getting things done.

That’s why we’re called 8 hands farm.   It’s about the four of us working together to build a farm and make it a success. I have a 14 year old daughter and a 10 year old son. We rely on them for a lot.  It’s not always easy, after all they are kids, but I have no doubt that they’ll reflect back and be grateful for the experience.  Even now I can see from the conversations we have, how what they are doing has matured their thinking.

Q: So what kind of farming did you decide to do?

A: We wanted to establish a multi-faceted farm, but wanted a centerpiece operation.  So we settled on sheep.  Sheep can be very productive animals. You have the fleece for wool, the milk for cheese, and the meat as well.  We decided to raise Icelandic sheep because they are triple purpose breed, unlike some breeds, which are primarily for the meat or the wool or the cheese.  And we loved the story of the Icelandic sheep.

Q: What’s the story?

The Vikings brought them to Iceland over a thousand years ago, and the sheep really helped them survive in that very difficult environment. Icelandic sheep are one of the oldest and purest breeds. In Iceland they care so much about the genetics they don’t let any other breeds of sheep into the country.

Icelandic sheep were brought to this country about 20 years ago, so the breed’s relatively new to the U.S.

Q: When did you start the farm?

In 2011 we decided to raise a flock. We bought 13 sheep from breeders in Virginia and Maine and we leased some property in Mattituck from Pindar to raise them.  Shortly thereafter we found out about a property in Cutchogue on Cox lane being sold by the Peconic Land Trust. We had in our minds that someday we wanted to have a flock of 100 milking sheep and needed pasture to be able to support that.  This property fit the bill.

The property was 28 acres in total; the other big plus was that there was an old potato barn on the property that we thought would be perfect for a farm store. It was on a relatively busy road, and we thought the visibility would be good for the store.

The property spoke to us. It wasn’t totally flat, it undulated a bit, and we really liked that. It was flanked by vineyards, which we also loved. In our minds we weren’t sure that we were fully ready to make the commitment, but we decided to go for it anyway.

We had to do a lot of work on it right away; it needed perimeter fencing, we needed an animal barn, and we needed to renovate the space for the farm store.

Q: Your farm is so new; is it done, or are you still building it?

We still have a lot to do, but we have transitioned the flock from the leased land to the farm in Cutchogue, and we have grown our flock to 111 sheep, most of it organic growth through lambing.

In addition to the sheep, we have 500 laying hens producing eggs, 200 chicks that will be future egg layers, and 10 tamworth pigs—they’re an old English heritage breed.   With our animals we tend to focus on raising heritage breeds.

In the summer, we grew produce for our farm store from a two acre vegetable plot on the property.  We just finished planting 145 lbs of garlic that we’ll be harvesting next summer.

We’ve had the farm stand up since last fall, and now have plans in the works to build out our cheese making operation, which is a more daunting task.

In comparison the wool is relatively easy; you shear the sheep a couple of times a year, and send it to a mill to be processed into yarn; for the meat you have to find a USDA approved facility to process the cuts and that’s not too hard; but the cheese is more involved. Beyond the significant capital investment in the equipment and a structure, it’s definitely more of a process.

Q: What can visitors to 8 Hands Farm expect?

As a business we are still evolving in terms of product offering.   Right now we’re open to the public on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 5, and we’ll do that through the end of the holidays. After that we will likely be open on Saturdays and Sundays through the winter.  In the summer we’re open 5 days a week.

We sell a broad range of products in the store, and for those who are interested, my daughter loves to give tours, show people the animals, and talk about the farm.

Our farm store overlooks the pastures.  People love to just take in the view of the pastures and watch the animals grazing.   It is very serene and relaxing.

Q: What do you stock in the store?

On an ongoing basis we have eggs and various pastured meats—we’ll have lamb in December.  We have lots of yarn from our flock that we had processed at a US based mill but I also work with a local artist who hand dyes and spins my roving to create the most exquisite yarns.  I work with other knitters who transform the yarns into one of a kind knit items for people who love our yarn but don’t knit.   We have scarves, cowls, fingerless gloves and felted hand bags.

I carry beautiful sheep horn jewelry made by Susan Pridham, owner of Blue Ruth in Greenport—my husband cuts and polishes the horn, and she designs the jewelry. We have wonderful local products, like coffee from Aldo’s, and in the summer we’ll have vegetables.

We also have lanolin skin care products. It’s not our lanolin—which is really quite a lot of work to extract from fleece and process to be cosmetic grade.  But I noticed that after we’d shear the sheep and I had handled fleeces all day, my hands were so soft and smooth from all the lanolin that’s naturally found in the fleece, so I became interested in lanolin.  I met a long island woman at a local fiber fair who made wonderful lanolin based skin care products, and we started carrying them. She makes other things for me too; I milked some of our sheep this summer and she made these wonderful soaps with the milk.

In short, our store is full of our farm’s products, and hand crafted treasures from our community.

Enjoy these scenes of 8 Hands Farm, shot by Kim Caldwell.