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A Very Heartfelt Fiber Farm

If you look up the word “Heartfelt” in the dictionary, you will find it teased and picked into a broad array of elements. To be “heartfelt” is to be passionate, earnest, sincere, warm, honest, and profound—among other things. I found all of these qualities manifest in abundance early this March at Leslie Adkins’ aptly named Heart Felt Fiber Farm in Santa Rosa, California. Leslie met me at the gate to her property on a brilliant Thursday morning, opening it to reveal a happy menagerie of chickens, roosters, dogs, goats, sheep, and camelids (as well as, unbeknownst to us at the time, a native garter snake!). The 3.5 acre farm consists mainly of pasture segmented for grazing rotation, embellished by two chicken dwellings and a dense peppering of potted vegetables. We toured the farm—which Leslie manages alone with help from her husband, Alden Adkins—before sitting down in the shade of several small pines to discuss the past, present and future of Heart Felt Fiber Farm.

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Leslie is native to the Washington DC area, and holds academic degrees in environmental science and ecology. Her formal education now provides the scientific background for a less formal kind of education, namely: learning how to achieve her goal of running an ecologically friendly, sustainable and humane fiber business. This is no easy task, considering the dizzying diversity of animals in her care. Leslie has six Icelandic sheep, one Shetland sheep, three Ouessant sheep, two Angora/La Mancha blend goats, one Suri Alpaca, one Llama and many others that are not participants in the fiber program. Each animal produces unique fiber—long, short, strong, soft, white to brown to black—based on breed, age, and other variables.

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This means that harnessing the distinct strengths of each requires an enormous amount of time, skill and devotion. Leslie knits, wet and dry felts, spins on two types of machines and weaves. She says: “I love a challenge and I love diversity… I’m working to maximize use of each fiber… it’s a constant learning process.” This process, though arduous, is essential to the development of Heart Felt because the eco-farm’s foremost principle is its no-kill ethic. Luckily for the animals, and those of us who love them and their fiber, each member of Leslie’s herd is expected to live out a long and happy life under her doting care.

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One faction of the Heart Felt family that’s of particular interest is Leslie’s little group of French Ouessant sheep. Ouessants are native to the French isle of Ouessant, off the coast of Brittany, where they were selected and bred by the women of the island for their small stature and dark hues. Leslie was first introduced to Ouessants when a friend developed a contagious interest in them. This interest evolved into a search across Europe for the sweet little creatures, but without success. Serendipitously, Leslie found a couple in Massachusetts with a herd of Ouessants, who were willing to part with a small number, and the first two Ouessants in California arrived in the back of a Prius a couple of weeks later. These sheep are a primitive species, meaning that they are hearty and adaptable, they produce a beautiful, highly spinnable fiber and are the smallest breed of sheep in the world. These sheep are of particular interest to California agriculturalists because their adaptable and versatile nature makes them good candidates for vineyard grazing practices.

Vineyard grazing is popular in Europe, where goats and sheep can be seen nibbling down grass in public parks and private holdings, and is quickly growing in popularity here in the States. Leslie is now responsible for a much larger family of California Ouessants than those first two pioneers; eight more from the same holding in Massachusetts live with Marie Hoff in Sebastopol as part of her Capella Grazing project, and another two live in the area on a small hobby farm. For more information on these lovely little sheep take a look at Leslie’s article on Ouessants, published by the Conference of Northern California Handweavers.

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Aside from enjoying a peaceful and pleasant existence and producing lovely fiber, the Heart Felt herd are teachers as well. Leslie loves having people and families visit her farm to learn about heartfelt fiber farming. She can tell you the full life-story, preferences, habits and personalities of each animal, and passionately illustrates for curious visitors the profound value of each animal’s life, which for her goes far beyond that of meat or fiber. Her animals are well socialized and sweet, not to mention excessively precocious; she attributes their wonderfully distinctive personalities to the animals having lived lives free from fear and stress, a correlation that seems too significant to dismiss. Upon expression of interest, Leslie will also happily reveal her fascinating collection of picking, carding, spinning and weaving paraphernalia for a demonstration, which I would definitely recommend!

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Heart Felt Fiber Farm and Leslie’s affair with fiber found its beginning more than seven years ago at the Adkins’ Inverness Valley Inn. They began by bringing a few chicks onto the property, and seven years later, the small eco-farm that began has a hobby for Leslie and an educational amenity for the guests at the Inn became a full-time job. The Adkins sold the Inn and moved the farm to Santa Rosa, where it has happily recommenced in the midst of a vibrant social and ecological community.

Heart Felt is hugged on two side by neighboring farms, the animal residents of which (including pygmy goats, miniature horses, cows, geese and dogs) have already befriended the Heart Felt family. The neighboring animals keep each other company through the fences, the guard dogs on the westerly farm have even taken it upon themselves to protect Leslie’s herd along with their own.

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On top of caring for her herd and flock of chickens, Leslie plays caretaker to the local ecology. As an inhabitant of the Laguna de Santa Rosa wetland complex (presently the second largest freshwater wetland in coastal Northern California and home to a staggering amount of biodiversity, including more than 200 species of birds, threatened and endangered salmonid species, bald and golden eagle, osprey, mountain lion, rover otter, coyote, bobcat, mink and gray fox), she considers herself beholden to the land. She takes care to avoid polluting the groundwater by aggregating the herd’s manure and keeping it dry to prevent leeching of nitrates, as well as using processing techniques that are fully man-powered and products that are free of toxic agents. In addition, Leslie protects the animal life that finds its way onto her property.

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This same love and respect for nature and its complexities seems to be the lifeblood of Heart Felt Fiber Farm, the warmth of which carries through from the appreciation and celebration of each animal’s life, to the knit hats and scarves Leslie so lovingly crafts from her homegrown fiber. Many thanks to Leslie, Alden and the lovely herd for keeping us warm this year!

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