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 said when we visited in 2010. “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, and soon the pair fell in love and married. Together, they manage the flocks at Stoney Mountain Farm in Burlington, and for two years have sold meat and wool at the Durham Farmers’ Market. “For him it was a return to childhood,” Olga says. “For me it was a whole new adventure.”
Originally, the focus of the farm was meat. Olga picked 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 (as opposed to the valuable merino sheep), so they were the ones brought to the New World. The Navajo used the wool in their weaving. But government-sponsored “flock reductions” (during a drought in the 1930’s) decimated the Navajo flocks; cross breedings left only isolated “original” sheep. By 1977, numbers were down to about 500.
Breeders started a project to restore the breed, choosing the name “Navajo-Churro” to indicate both 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. And Slow Food has expressed a desire to protect the breed, which has a “delicate flavor.”
At 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 ewes with extra protein. They don’t wean the lambs but let the mothers do it. 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 and worming as needed. Their pastures are planted with black walnut, rosemary, dock, and other natural remedies that animals seek out when needed. As a result, their sheep barely ever need worming.
As time passed, 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.” She also began selling wool products such as fleeces, roving, yarn, and pelts. But her dryer balls were 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 told us. “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 around the laundry, 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 time approximately in half. Dryer balls are eco-friendly in more ways: 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 reduces your carbon footprint, since products like dryer sheets and softeners 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. Olga says that even customers who prefer to line-dry find the dryer balls useful on rainy days, or pollen-filled ones.
Olga’s dryer balls are 100% wool, felted from the wool of their sheep with no chemicals or dyes. The balls also make good cat toys; something about the wool brings out the primal instincts in cats. Some dogs even like them! Olga’s dryer balls are on sale in our stores near the laundry detergents. Learn more about Olga and John’s farm at their website, www.stoneymountainfarm.com, or watch our video, below.