The day begins early and lasts long for farmer Sandra Bennett of Thistle Cove Farm in Tazewell, familiar to some as the farm seen in the background of the video cover of Lassie, Come Home; the movie was filmed in the valley in 1994.
She gives a quick look from an upstairs window to check on the animals before heading to the sunroom for coffee and time with God. She reads five chapters in the Bible, a habit learned from her parents, and watches the morning sun wash over the valley.
The next few hours she checks on and feeds the various animals at the farm, including sheep, horses, dogs, cats and birds. During winter, she takes special care to check the animals’ water supply to make sure it hasn’t frozen.
Back inside, she spends several hours working on farm business, writing press releases and promotional material, grants and brochures. She sometimes prepares fleece and hand-spun yarn for shipping.
Fleece awaits her in the barn, too, and she works there later in the day, if the day warms enough. She heads out to the pastures to check on the hay supply and make sure all the animals have enough to eat. Another ice-check, too.
If the weather stays cold, she stays inside and spins yarn on her spinning wheel, sometimes weaving a shawl on the tri-loom, or perhaps knitting a hat or sweater.
One last time before dark, Sandra heads back outside to check on the feed, water and animals. If lambs are due, she is in and out several times a night to check on the expectant moms. Though they rarely need her assistance, she likes to be there in case she’s needed, and perhaps to enjoy the miracle of birth.
An Illustration of Christ’s Love
Sandra began giving tours of the farm in the fall of 1995 when a school bus stopped up the road looking for a tour guide of another area attraction. The guide didn’t appear, and Sandra offered to give a tour of her farm, instead.
After some research, Sandra realized that tours would help support the farm. The fact that less than “one percent of the USA population (260 million) farm or live in rural areas means people have little or no idea where their food or clothing originates and most adults (younger than Baby Boomers) have never petted a sheep or horse.”
Tours last about an hour and a half and include a lesson in farming and an illustration of God’s love, something many children in public schools have never experienced. Sandra is free to include God in the tour, something teachers have expressed appreciation for, since they are not allowed to talk about Christianity in public schools.
“Christian teachers are told to keep their religion out of the classroom but when they come here I'm not bound by such limitations. Before children eat lunch, I lead them in the "God is great" blessing. For some, it's the first time they have I heard of a blessing, much less said a blessing!
“To see a rainbow is to be reminded of God's promise to Noah...I tell the children what rainbows mean, what God promised thousands of years ago. I tell them how real God is to me; how He blesses me and how He has blessed them by bringing them to Thistle Cove Farm. I want them to understand, above all things they may learn during their visit, that God reigns at Thistle Cove Farm. It is His will being accomplished here; it is His grace and mercy that allows this farm to flourish and succeed.
“If nothing else, when people leave here, they know they have been to God's outside church.
“I liken a sheep fleece to becoming a Christian. When the shearer cuts the fleece off the sheep, I take the fleece, skirt it of foreign material (manure, urine, lanolin tags, vegetable matter) and then take it to be washed.
“Some fleeces can have 50% of their weight in "dirt" so I wash them in HOT water and soap and lay them in the sun to dry. After they are dried, I put them through a machine called a "picker" which has long, sharp, angry teeth that separates and fluffs the fleece to prepare it for blending. The next step is blending using a carder (this machine has short, metal teeth) and this machine produces rolags (loose rolls of wool). I take the rolags to the spinning wheel and spin the wool into yarn.
“The comparison is thus...when we first meet Christ, we've been living in sin, we're dirty, matted, weighed down with sin and bad memories/experiences and living in our own muck and mire.
“Lovingly, Christ begins to trim sin from our lives; our habits change, our language changes, our friend may even change. Our sinful life is cut away, much like the shearer cuts away the fleece.
“Then begins the process of sanctification. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly Christ works with us (inasmuch as we'll allow) to make us into His image. Sometimes He allows us to get into HOT water so sin will be exposed and washed away.
“Sometimes He allows us to go through a process similar to the picker where our sins are brought (perhaps again and again, depending upon our ability to recognize and allow Him to deal with us) to the forefront. Sometimes this process is extremely painful, seeming to take a long time, but, necessary for the process to be accomplished.
“Blending fibers to prepare them for spinning is blending (bending) our wills to the Lords' will. We allow His work in our life, and, thus, become blended with Him. We reflect His image so ours fades into the background, much like individual fibers become blended, one with another, so the whole is a pleasing and acceptable presentation.
“I keep it a bit simpler with younger children but older children and adults immediately recognize the comparisons.”
A Curly Horse?
At Thistle Cove Farm, sheep are not the only animals with wool coats. Ten, rare American Curly Horses are also part of the family, and their hair is sometimes blended with the sheep wool to make hats, shawls and other knit goods. These larger animals are trained as companion animals and are very gentle and sociable.
Meri-Go-Lightly, Dandy Man and Tumbleweed are three of Sandra’s favorite horses, and she says Dandy Man is an “in my pocket” Curly horse. He would rather be with Sandra than the herd.
A ‘Soul’ Operation
Sandra finds herself in a unique situation. She is the sole staff for the farm and takes responsibility for all the care and vetting of the animals, including all the farm chores.
A former sales manager for an import/export company, as well as a salesperson for computer paper to government offices in Washington, D.C., Sandra longed for a simpler life she first glimpsed as a child, spending summers on her paternal aunts’ farms in West Virginia.
“That's where I learned to love farm life. From the time I was six years old, I've known I wanted to farm. On Sunday's, Mom & Dad would take me to the local pony farm and I'd dress up in my little cowgirl outfit (complete with twin 6-guns!) and ride a pony. I'm the first generation to grow up off the farm but I've made it back!”
She met her husband, Dave Bennett, a retired financial consultant and stockbroker, in Richmond, and they were married on the front lawn of the farm after buying the property in the summer of 1995. Both of their families have roots in Appalachia, dating back 250 years. The women in Sandra’s family were spinners, and so is Sandra, today. A photo of her father at 7-years old, with twin black lambs is her ‘hang-tag’ for wool products she produces.
Though Dave enjoys the countryside, he is not a farmer. He supports Sandra’s efforts and is proud of her endeavors.
“People don't understand farming. They don't understand the sheer amount of work, the hard work, the love of farming, the love of the labor. Dave thinks I'm crazy to work this hard. When we moved here, we made an agreement, I would farm and he wouldn't. That's the way it still is...I farm and he watches me farm. He's a high tech geek (computers, electronics) and I'm a low-tech geek (spinning, weaving). It works for us.”
Tradition Adds Meaning to Life
“My parent's raised me with a strong work ethic and I enjoy work. So much so, I have to remember to take down time, to remember to stop and enjoy what isn't work.
“When we first moved here, I worked seven days a week and enjoyed every minute. But after a Bible study where the teacher talked about "keeping the Sabbath,” I began to re-think working on Sunday. Now, I keep the Sabbath.
“I only do the work that HAS to be done...feeding the animals but nothing else. I don't mow or mend fence. I keep the Sabbath.
“It's been wonderfully restorative and allows me to fully appreciate what the farm and the Sabbath is all about. It allows me to appreciate my animals and my time here.
Sometimes I'll take my knitting or my spinning wheel into the pasture, sit with the sheep and enjoy their company. The dogs and cats go with me. and everyone cavorts around, talking to me and each other, enjoying the day and the company...keeping the Sabbath.”
Storytelling and Shearing
Originally 1,000 acres, the farm is now reduced to just under 30-acres, but the land is enough to accommodate its residents, and it keeps them until they leave the earth by natural causes. The farm is a ‘no-kill’ farm, and is called home by 2 humans, 31 sheep, 10 horses, 3 dogs and numerous barn cats.
Also a children’s storywriter, Sandra tells tales of animals, all with special names, and brings their characteristics to life. “The stories are rather like Aesop's Fables and, for those with eyes to see, parallel human lives and events,” she says.
Sheep are the major focus of the farm’s routines, and include the breeds of Shetland, Romney, Merino and Shetland mixed with Romney.
The third Saturday in April of each year marks Sheep Shearing Day at the farm and is open to the public. Also on hand are heritage-artisans who demonstrate how to craft four-string mountain dulcimers, iron courtin’ candles, leather saddles, fillet crochet, spin yarn, weave shawls, and more.
Wool from Thistle Cove is used to make blankets and yarn, sold as raw fleece, knitted or woven into hats, shawls and sweaters. “Our fleeces are certified under the VA Dept of Ag & Consumer Services "Virginia's Finest" program. That's something to be proud of as there are only two other farms in Virginia who have the same designation for their wool.”
When asked what aspects of the care of lambs and sheep transfer into her daily life, and if the activities help Sandra connect with Jesus as our Shepherd and Lamb, her response told of many lessons learned:
“I better understand why humans exasperate God. We tend to think we know better than the Shepherd does; we rail against that which is good for us such as medicine, being "sheared or pruned.”
“God must have the patience of Job (no joke intended!) to put up with His silly creation. Sheep will get stuck on the wrong side of the fence, not know how to get back on the right side of the fence and bleat their heads off to let you know to "COME HELP ME RIGHT NOW!" How like humans...we do something wrong, commit some sin, and then we ask "where was God?" Well, God was right where HE was supposed to be. We moved to the wrong place!
“The smallest things remind me of God's love and grace and mercy. I brought a kitten from the barn to the house . . . doctor on her, get her warm, give her some good food and give her another chance at life. Now she's living in her little cat carrier with antibiotics, ear meds, good food...so like me/us
“Christ takes us out of our mucky sinful life, gives us a new life/home/heart. Some of us can't believe what a blessing it is, but settle right in to live and walk a life with Him. Some of us can't believe the blessing, think we don't deserve it and go right back to our sinful ways.
“Lessons, like miracles, abound moment by moment in our lives, but, some of us are too busy to see them, too busy to learn them. We miss Ordinary Miracles because we're waiting for the Red Sea to part. We miss the rainbows because we're focused on the rain. We miss God because we're focused on us. We miss life and then wonder what happened. We miss the Shepherd's touch and never even know it, because we're waiting for the wind and don't hear His whisper.”
To schedule a tour or have Sandra teach classes on weaving, spinning and knitting, go online to Thistle Cove Farm or call 276-988-4121. Field trips are by appointment only.