Olga-John&Olga.jpgOlga’s Dryer Balls
Stoney Mountain Farm
Olga Brewer & John Elder, Burlington, NC

by Emily Buehler, Contributing Writer
At 47, Olga Brewer left her city job as an insurance executive to buy a farm. “I followed my dream and it was scary,” she says. “I left a good job, and found myself in Alamance County, not knowing a soul.” Her old friend, John Elder, who’d been raised on a farm and studied animal husbandry, started coming around to help; soon the pair fell in love, then married.  Together, they manage the flocks at Stoney Mountain Farm in Burlington, NC, and sell meat and wool at the Durham and Greensboro curbside Farmers’ Markets. “For him it was a return to childhood,” Olga says. “For me it was a whole new adventure.”

Olga-sheep-horiz.jpgOriginally, the focus of the farm was meat. Olga selected Navajo-Churro sheep because they are a rare breed that she hoped to propagate. The sheep have survived a long history and near extinction. They were the “common sheep” in Spain in the 1600’s (in contrast to the valuable merino sheep), so they were the ones brought to the New World. The Navajo used the wool in their weaving. But, during a drought in the 1930s, government-sponsored “flock reductions” decimated the Navajo flocks; cross-breedings left only isolated “original” sheep. By 1977, the population was down to about 500.

Breeders began a project to restore the breed, choosing the name “Navajo-Churro” to indicate both the Navajo and Spanish heritage. The Navajo-Churro sheep are no longer in danger of extinction, but are still considered a rare breed. They have colorful wool that makes durable yarn and good carpets; they adapt to many environments and are known for a good temperament. Slow Food has expressed a desire to protect the breed, which has a “delicate flavor.”

Olga-ChicksOut.jpgAt Stoney Mountain Farm, Olga and John aim to “preserve the ways of the past while honoring Mother Nature.” They conserve the land with no timbering or aggressive plowing, and practice “Lasagna Gardening,” layering the soil with resources from the farm. They incorporate pasture-rotation with grain-feeding during lambing to provide the ewes with extra protein. They let the mother sheep wean the lambs. No hormones are used, and they don’t follow conventional parasite control—regular treatments with wormers-which result in stronger parasites. Instead, they follow the FAMACHA program: checking animals for parasites, then worming as needed. Their pastures are planted with black walnut, rosemary, dock, and other natural remedies that the animals seek out when needed. As a result, their sheep barely ever require worming.

Olga-Lucy&girls.jpgAs time passed on the farm, wool “byproduct” began to pile up. Olga didn’t know anything about wool, but she wanted to find a use for it. Her first attempt was needle felting, a craft in which a barbed needle is used to sculpt felt, often into a “critter.” The ease of felting amazed Olga as she watched a critter form before her eyes. Wanting to let people know how easy and satisfying the craft was, she made felting kits with wool, needles, and instructions. She also began selling wool products—fleeces, roving, yarn, pelts—which come in 20 natural colors, as well as some colors produced with natural dyes. She pays extra to have the mill keep each sheep's fleece separate, so that customers know which sheep provided their yarn. This acknowledges the contribution of the sheep as well as making it easier for knitters to match colors.

dryerballs.jpgBut the Dryer Balls have been the biggest hit. A customer suggested that Olga make them, and they got a phenomenal response. “I can’t believe how people buy them,” Olga says. “Magic Woolies, I call them.” Dryer balls are tennis-ball-sized felt balls that go in the clothes dryer. As clothes tumble, the balls bat the laundry around, giving it loft, so that the hot air can circulate better. The even distribution of heat dries clothes faster, which saves energy. The recommended 3 balls will cut up to 25% off drying time; use 6 and cut the drying time approximately in half.

And dryer balls are eco-friendly in more ways, too. They soften laundry and reduce static cling, eliminating the need for chemical softeners and dryer sheets. This helps the landfill (dryer balls are reusable) and reduces the use of chemicals.  Using Olga’s dryer balls reduces your carbon footprint, since you no longer need products like dryer sheets and softeners which must travel to the store from the factory where they are made. And dryer balls can save you money: they cost about the same as low-end dryer sheets, but if you buy eco-friendly dryer sheets, the balls cost approximately half as much.  (Calculated for 5 loads a week, eco-friendly dryer sheets cost $50/year, while one set of 3 dryer balls costs only $20. The set will last at least a year.) Olga has found that even customers who prefer to line-dry their clothes find the dryer balls useful on rainy or pollen-filled days.

Olga-teenagers.jpgOlga’s dryer balls are 100% wool, felted from the wool of their sheep with no chemicals or dyes. Felting is done with a washer and dryer. (If you’d like to try it, she sells “make-your-own” kits.) Olga’s dryer balls are now available at all three Weaver Street Market locations Look for them near the laundry detergents. Learn more about Olga and John’s farm at their website. Watch a video of our visit to the farm on Youtube. And here's a video of Olga and John's chickens.