By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Great Wool is not simply the name of a business to Julie and Andrew Mackenzie — it describes every step of their operation from the birth of a lamb with superior wool quality to the end product of a hand-knitted sweater. Although Rambouillet sheep produce good meat, the Mackenzies specifically breed their sheep for wool quality.
“Rambouillet sheep wool is a type of merino wool, the finest wool. It’s stretchier than merino, good for spinning and easy to dye,” said Julie Mackenzie, who is the planning committee president for Shepherd’s Harvest Festival, an annual May event in Lake Elmo.
“It is the only fleece competition in Minnesota and a great way to connect with local farmers,” said Mackenzie. “We started with 40 fleeces and last year had 140. We’re smarter about caring for sheep, and the vendor base is growing.”
“There are companies in Ireland and Canada who use wool to make home insulation,” Mackenzie said.
“The average fleece weight is six pounds,” she said. “Washing takes off some of the lanolin which takes away some of the weight. Then the fleece is skirted, which is removing the unusable parts around the edges. My daughter is a champion skirter.”
“After being washed, carded, combed, spun, possibly dyed and then knitted, an average fleece can produce three or four sweaters,” said Mackenzie.
The Mackenzies bought Open Sky Farm, located south of Sauk Centre, in 2000, after a family reunion brought them back to Stearns County. “I was a city girl and my husband is from New York. We had been discussing on the car ride up how we wanted our kids’ growing-up years to be,” Mackenzie said.
“We drove past the farm where my mother and her sisters grew up and saw it was for sale,” she said. “We looked at it, then looked for another farm to make a comparison.”
“This farm was advertised in the Dairyland Peach, and we decided to make an offer. It was when we were discussing terms with the realtor that I walked over to some trees next to the house and my hair stood up,” said Mackenzie.
After closely questioning the realtor, she found out that the property they were standing on belonged to her great-grandmother’s sister. “And this farm is next to the farm where my great-grandmother lived,” she said.
“We are the keepers of the land,” said Mackenzie. “I can trace my family back six generations on that property.”
“When choosing a sheep breed, we found that Rambouillet are able to handle both high heat and humidity and extreme cold,” she said. “They are good mothers who usually have twins.”
“So far this season, 27 lambs have been born. They are so cute and gentle; this is why Jesus was born in a manger,” she said. “We also have Hot Rod the llama, who is a spectacular guard animal and very good with lambs.”
“Since sheep are prey animals and they know it, they generally shy away from people,” said Mackenzie. “But if we spend time with the young lambs, they are calmer with us.”
“We try to hang out near the sheep pens, letting them hear our voices and be more familiar with us here, so that when it comes time to inoculate or shear them they aren’t so bothered,” she said.
“With fewer than 200 sheep, this is considered a small flock,” Mackenzie said. “A lot of people could have a couple of sheep of their own. Most shepherds do something else to support themselves.”
“A good way to connect with other shepherds at the community level is through Minnesota Lamb and Wool,” said Mackenzie. A producer organization, Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers can be reached at www.mlwp.org.
She feels that raising and caring for sheep is really a family project. “It’s not as big an operation as cattle,” she said. “I would love to see more small farm innovations.”
“The quality of life I have comes with caring for an animal,” said Mackenzie. “From birthing it, through shearing, to spinning and then knitting a sweater, to repurposing the worn sweater.”
“Spinning is very calming. When I’m aggravated, I can sit and spin for 15 minutes, and it calms me down,” said Mackenzie.
“When I wake up at 4 a.m. to check the barn and get to see the Big Dipper, it’s really a gift,” she said. “It’s a bigger connection to nature.”
“Wool in your hands. Art in your life.” is Great Wool’s motto.
“Using wool isn’t just knitting a sweater; it can be felting a tea cozy, crocheting a rug or needle-felting a painting,” said Mackenzie.
Look for Mackenzie’s wool online at www.Great wool.com.