Conservation Locally Made Outdoors

Rusted Earth Farm Raises Rare Navajo-Churro Sheep

By Belle Crawford

Jessica Sanchez and Kyle Guie of Rusted Earth Farm moved from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the mountains of Western North Carolina in 2015. The couple purchased 18 acres of land in Marshall in an attempt to step back from the hustle and bustle of urban life and develop a deeper connection to the earth.

“The decision to raise animals came after we found the land,” says Sanchez. “The topography was not ideal for growing produce. With its steep slopes and narrow valleys, it was more suited for raising livestock. We now have a herd of 29 Navajo-Churro sheep, a breed once maintained mostly by the Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico.”

During the 19th century, Navajo-Churro were bred with fine wool rams in order to produce more commercially viable wool. This process, along with a systematic extermination of the sheep the US government claimed was needed to protect grasslands, led to the near extinction of the Navajo-Churro in the 1970s. Luckily, a handful of dedicated conservationists began trying to preserve the sheep, and today the Navajo-Churro population has climbed from fewer than 500 to around 4,500. While they are still considered threatened, their numbers are steadily growing.

Jessica Sanchez with a Navajo Churro lamb.

Prior to developing Rusted Earth Farm, Sanchez and Guie had little to no experience raising sheep for wool. “Western North Carolina has the highest density of fiber artists and farmers in the US,” says Sanchez. “I began reaching out and doing farm visits, and I found an incredibly strong and supportive community in the fiber world here.”

Nothing prepared Sanchez, however, for the challenge of catching and shearing sheep. “YouTube has been my main source of info for the process,” she says. “For the most part, we’ve been learning as we go.”

Sanchez and Guie breed their Navajo-Churro sheep, and are now taking deposits for their 2017 lambs. All lambs were sired by the couple’s handsome ram, Zeke, and a $50 deposit will hold a lamb until it is ready to leave Rusted Earth Farm in mid-July. They also have Jacob sheep.

The next step for Rusted Earth Farm is the production of rugs and tapestries from Navajo-Churro fibers. “I currently work part-time in my onsite studio as a potter, woodworker and painter,” says Sanchez. “Textile art is a totally new realm for me. I am excited to produce something traditional with historical significance but with modern appeal. To start, I will be building a traditional Navajo rug loom and experimenting with the yarns.”

Rusted Earth Farm is developing a walking tour with highlights around the property including a small organic produce garden, shiitake logs in the woodland, a mobile chicken coop, forest medicinal herbs and, of course, the sheep. The farm is also home to a tiny smokehouse cabin that will soon be available to Asheville tourists on Airbnb.

Rusted Earth Farm is located at 11 Mountain Airy Road in Marshall. For more information about the sheep or to book a farm tour, visit rustedearth.com.

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