Navajo-Churro sheep at Shelburne Farms
For centuries, Navajo-Churro sheep have been integral to the Navajo culture, providing the Navajo with what they needed to survive in the desert: meat for sustenance, wool for weaving clothing and blankets, sinew for thread.
Since 2006, we’ve had Navajo-Churro sheep at Shelburne Farms. Why? Farm friend Brian Bock explains.
In 2006, my parents Gail and Charlie Bock were going to be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. What do you give two people who didn’t “need a thing,” and who were living in Utah, while I was here in Vermont?
My daughters Elsa and Sophie loved Shelburne Farms. Elsa was involved with 4-H, and was staunchly committed to bottle feeding the Farm lambs that required supplemental milk.
My parents also loved sheep. They were active with the Navajo Sheep Project at Utah State University, where they helped Doc Lyle McNeal revive the Churro sheep breed. They had delivered several loads of sheep to Navajo weavers, who prized the tough wool for their rugs.
My daughters and I hatched a plan: donate several Churros to Shelburne Farms, and let their story be told at the Children’s Farmyard. The Farm agreed and donations flooded in from family and friends who were also puzzling over a meaningful anniversary gift. I just needed to drive to Utah or Arizona, pick up the sheep, and drive them safely back (somehow caring for them along the way!). Luckily, Marian White in Tunbridge, Vermont spared me this challenge. Marian also had a love of rare breed farm animals, and years before, she had carried crates of baa’ing Churro lambs from Black Mesa, Arizona back east.
That spring, three lambs passed through the Farm gates: a red colored ram, Little Chief Charlie, a ewe with a black body and white hat, Turquoise Gail, and an all-white ewe, Una Rose. My Dad passed away that summer before their 50th anniversary, but he was proud to see photos of the Churros grazing in the fields of Vermont.
Over the years, we carried or shipped wool shorn from these sheep back to the Navajo weavers. One weaver, Elvira Horseherder, told us how thankful she was for the fleece and the photos, remarking how beautiful the sheep looked in the green pastures. “The land here is dry, dusty and windy,” she said.
So many people were involved with the gift that we happily shepherded (!). It has given back so much to us in ways I never could have imagined.
Today, that original flock of three Navajo-Churro sheep has slowly grown to become a small but significant part of our Shelburne Farms flock. We generally have 12-15 ewes, which we breed each year to purebred Navajo-Churro rams.
Because Churro wool grows so fast, it can start felting while still on the sheep! To prevent this, we shear the Churros twice a year – in the spring and fall.
In the past few years, Green Mountain Spinnery has spun those fleeces into yarn. This year, Farm Manager Sam Dixon chatted with David Ritchie at the Spinnery about possible items we could make with the Churro yarn. (Sam has known David since his days farming down in southern Vermont.) David connected us to Rabbit Goody of Thistle Hill Weavers in New York, and this winter, Rabbit wove the Churro yarn – with its natural coloration – into throw rugs.
With these rugs – now available for sale at our Farm Store – we honor many things: the generosity of Brian Bock, the work of his parents, the history of the Navajo Nation, the artisans who work with wool, and all the ways in which each of us is connected to agriculture.
Call the Farm Store at 802-985-8442 for more information and/or to order a rug!