From Fleece to Fiber

By Lisa Schmelz | Photography by Holly Leitner

It is Sunday in late April, the sky is a dazzling blue, and Susan Miller, the widowed owner of Tall Grass Farm, is not answering the door of her red-roofed home on Lake Lorraine Road in Richmond Township. But her gray pick-up is in the driveway, appropriately surrounded by tall grass, and the sounds coming from her barn suggest she is nearby.

After her name is called from the center of the property a couple of times, she emerges from a small side door, water bucket in hand, her tiny form framed by the massive, century-old barn.

“Hey,” she hollers to an unexpected visitor. “Come on in, I’m just double-checking everybody, and everybody’s great.”

Everybody, in this case, is a menagerie of fiber: Four Shetland sheep; 17 Angora goats; and one fiercely protective guard llama named Velvet.

For the record, Susan is also great. Tired, but great. Clad in a blue zip-up sweatshirt, a burgundy long-sleeve shirt, black pants, work boots, and tan work gloves, she moves through her chores with speed, efficiency and love for every creature she encounters.

“Hey, sweeties,” she coos to an assembled audience of goats, as she serves up the heated water they prefer. “Here you go, girls and boys. Here you go.”

Four years after the death of her husband, Warren “Sam” Miller, Susan carries on their dream of fiber farming. Even if it is a scaled back operation today, she finds peace here. She still works three days a week as a clinical therapist with struggling teens and children, but it is the work here, on the farm, that sustains her.

“When Sam died, I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have this place,” she says. “If I didn’t have animals to care for in the morning, I would have stayed in bed. I would have given up.”

FROM OLIVE TREES TO HOOVES AND HORNS

This was supposed to be a story about a farm that raises yarn, a journey of fiber – from fleece to finished form. But like all stories worth telling, the detours offer a better view than the main road.

Once upon a time, Susan and Sam lived in Visalia, California. They had a five-acre orchard of olive trees, and did not raise goats or sheep. While the olives grew, they tended to successful careers. At that time, Susan was the finance manager for the City of Visalia. Sam was a management training consultant, with his own firm, and two daughters from a previous marriage.

When Sam and Susan, who later obtained her masters in social work and became a therapist, heard the pitter patter of their first grandchild’s feet 2,000-plus miles away in northern Illinois, they did what any papa-and nana-to-be would do. They moved closer.

“He loved being here,” says Susan simply. “He found this place.”

This place in southern Wisconsin, though, would not grow olives, which was fine by Susan. Olives, she says, don’t have personalities. Besides, she had other ideas. For a very long time, she explains, she had always wanted Shetland sheep.

Why Shetland sheep?

“We went to a fiber festival,” she says, “as people do, as people do, and it got me to thinking.”

When the sentence ends, there is enough earnestness in her voice to not ask more. Susan really wanted Shetland sheep. Her wanting was reason enough.

However in October 1994, when Sam and Susan bought Tall Grass Farm, Shetland sheep were out of the question. Classified at that time as endangered, they were too pricey. An ad in The Shopper, a weekly classified paper, offered an alternative.

“There was an ad for Pygora goats,” remembers Susan. “We bought three. They were $50 each. They were adults and we did that for a year and then we met Angora goats and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Again, no further-pressing is needed. If you have half a clue, you get it. Tall Grass Farm was never about profit, though there was some and it continues to pay its way today.

Tall Grass Farm was and is about following that still, small voice inside that says, Hey, this is something that is going to bring you joy. Go for it. Just go for it.

Tall Grass Farm thrived, and the herd peaked at 60 goats. As fate would have it, Susan also got her Shetland sheep. When Sam balked at the sheep, she put her foot down.

“He wasn’t happy when I wanted to add the two sheep,” says Susan. “But I told him ‘I want to have sheep in this lifetime’ and they were free and he fell in love with them.”

Hundreds of others fell in love with Tall Grass Farms. Fiber artists, city slickers who wanted a slice of rural life, and family and friends, made the bi-annual shearing days the social events of the season.

Because Sam also listened to the still small voice inside, he built Susan a workshop, where she could sell fiber, hand-dyed yarn,

blankets, oil, soap and other products from their humble herd. Her Shetland sheep provided wool, and the Angora goats provided mohair, a smoother fiber.

Native to Turkey, one strand of mohair is said to be stronger than steel of the same diameter. Used in clothing, furniture, and blankets, it comes from a hooved and horned animal not lacking in smarts.

“Goats have the intelligence of a seven-year-old, so think of all the trouble a seven-year-old can get in. If there’s any way a goat can get into trouble, it will,” says Susan.

As she says this, her goats have inched closer to the fence she is leaning on. For a brief moment, there is no baaing. It’s as if they know to be silent when the truth is spoken. Even Velvet the guard llama, who protects the herd from coyotes, seems to be nodding in approval.

FARMING WITHOUT SAM

Sam Miller died on July 3, 2011, at 72, of complications from chemotherapy, explains Susan. His obituary, penned mostly by Susan with some help from his daughters, Laurie and Brenda, described his passing as his “last great adventure” and him as a “modern mystic/gonzo anthropologist/intrepid traveler/goat herder and published author.”

He held a degree in music from Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia, and a masters in divinity at Bethany Theological Seminary in Chicago.

“He was an amazing man,” says Susan.

Farming without Sam, she adds, isn’t easy – especially in the winter. She soon realized that without Sam’s muscles, she couldn’t handle the bucks in the herd and sold them off. And Sam, she says, handled so much of the work in the barn. The feeding, the cleaning, the doctoring, he was here with the herd while she was counseling young people at Mercy in Janesville. Even with the elimination of public shearing events, even with her reduction in hours as a therapist, it feels overwhelming at times, she admits.

So will she give it up? Will she sell Tall Grass Farm?

“I just take it year by year,” she says, finally sitting on a metal lawn chair in her yard once her chores are done. “I know, obviously, I can’t do it forever. I probably can’t do it when I’m 80. I might, but probably not. And Sam, he really loved this place. We put down roots here. It’s been 21 years.”

Once again, she ends her thought with emphasis and not a flood of words. Twenty-one years on Tall Grass Farm, and a quarter of a century as Sam’s wife, makes it hard for her to imagine a life anyplace else.

Even if she does have to give up caring for the goats and the sheep, there’s a very good chance she’ll still be here spinning yarn, so to speak. Last week, a delivery truck dropped off an industrial needle felting machine. Gleaming on her enclosed front porch, it is a five-figure investment in what appears to be her next chapter.

“It will take vats of fiber from people, who don’t know what do with their fiber, and turn it into felted fabric for garments or turn it into rugs,” she says, staring into the still partially crated wonder machine. “People don’t really know what do with their fiber. I’m so excited about getting this going.”

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