PULASKI — The New River Valley Sheep and Goat Club was founded in 2014 as a network of sheep and goat producers dedicated to promoting, advocating for and growing the number of sheep and goats in the mountains of rural Southwest Va., as well as nearby regions of N.C. and W.V.a.
While the club started out with only about 10 farms, their membership has grown to 200 farms and about 650 individual members.
“We started with 13 counties in Southwest Va. and we are now in three states. We have a lot of people from N.C. and W.Va. because there is not that support there. We were talking about how someone should promote sheep and goats in our region,” Board Member, Sarah Smiley said. “The markets are changing, we should be doing more to promote these animals and it occurred to us that it was us to do it.”
The club aims to educate the general public regarding issues related to farming, working with animals and rural development.
“We formed the group and it grew and we tried to inform the public about the benefits of sheep and goats,” Smiley said. “People want to be farmers, but they don’t know how to do it, so we started doing mentorships. One of our problems was with meat production, it gets a bad reputation, so how do we help farmers raise healthy and happy animals.”
The club’s mission is to support sheep and goat farmers, support artisan members and preserve their culture. They feel a responsibility to support their members. Their sheep and goat producers generate many benefits to local communities that are provided by the raising of sheep and goats on the hillsides.
“We want to mesh the environmental and economic development-wise,” Smiley said. “That is the hard part of farming, people romanticize it, but you have to make money off of it.”
Making a living off of sheep and goat farming depends on the products created by the farmers. That is why the club supports its artisans. Those members use their artistic skills to create many unique and specialized handcrafted products such as fiber arts, including handspun yarns, knitted and felted items and wearable art and clothing. In addition, they produce goat milk, soaps and lotions.
“We want to start that next year of taking the wool straight from the fleece and making the yarn,” Smiley said. “We actually have members in the club who have these talents who will volunteer their time on drop-spindling, that is right when you take the fiber right off the fleece.”
The last part of the mission of the club is to preserve the culture of sheep and goat farmers. They are respectful of the fact that thousands of years of raising sheep and goats as part of man’s agricultural practices have provided many of the ingredients necessary to allow the people of the New River Valley survive, prosper and live a more comfortable life.
But, the club does not stop its outreach at the three states it has members in. In recent years, they have taken to traveling with their livestock.
“Cecil King (Club President) is amazing for something up with ideas and he is the one that started wanting us to take our livestock to Pennsylvania,” Smiley said. “We even started some people start tractor-trailer business. That has helped a lot of people expand their farming practices.”
The club is looking to expand in 2020 with its promotion of farms and classes that are approachable for children and adults. In addition to club events, they will continue to take their livestock to New Holland, Penn.
“Cecil King went to New Holland a few years ago and met with the largest buyers and introduced the club and assured them of quality sheep and goats,” Smiley said. “The club also created a distinct brand for member livestock that met the high standards the buyers were looking for. On average, the livestock with the Club tags sell from $.05 to $.20 more per lb.”
The travel is worth the reward for the club. In addition to outreach for the club, they get better prices for their livestock in Penn. The care the club members have for their animals is evident through their farming practices and their travel process.
“Club members also volunteer to travel with the animals to feed and water them to reduce weight loss and stress,” Smiley said. “The club has not only received praise from the large buyers for bringing in quality livestock, but other livestock auctions have heard about the club and have approached us to bring livestock to their markets.”
In 2020, the club will continue to grow by mentoring new farmers, helping families and children with 4H competitions and “agriculture days” at local schools. But they are growing internationally as well.
“We decided this year, since we believe in promoting sheep and goats, that we would work with an international organization, Heifer International, to donate to send goats (as they can usually live in more varied climates and conditions than sheep) to help poor families increase their food security and encourage economic development,” Smiley said. “The club planned to pay for a goat but we also opened it up to the members if they wanted to donate. We had enough donations to pay for eight goats and since the day we sent in payment, it was triple matching, the club sent 24 goats to families across the world.”
Smiley encouraged local farmers to join the New River Valley Sheep and Goat Club as long as the farmer has an appreciation for sheep and goats.
“If they want to join, it is $30 for a farm (four people) or a membership,” Smiley said. “Have an appreciation for sheep and goats. Our artisan people, they work with sheep and goat farmers. We want happy and healthy animals.”
For more information, find the New River Valley Sheep and Goat Club on Facebook or visit their website at nrvsheepandgoatclub.com.
— Contact Emily Rice at firstname.lastname@example.org