July 2023 Studio Hours Recap: Tara Klager on Regenerative Agriculture

15 August 2023

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In the July Studio Hours, we were treated to a dynamic presentation by Tara Klager of Providence Lane Homestead, looking at both an innovative project she completed last spring and also delving into her work in regenerative agriculture.

Tara and her partner, Bob, are community builders and strongly committed to permaculture ethics, animal husbandry, and regenerative agriculture (she said that sustainable is not good enough—she wants to leave the land in better condition than she found it). She is a first-generation fibre farmer raising endangered and heritage breed sheep near the Rocky Mountain foothills in Alberta. She acts to safeguard and steward the amazing place she calls home.

Tara presented stories from her experiences working with students in the Industrial Design program at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver last spring (more details in two articles published earlier this year). There, she worked with Hélène Day Fraser of the Material Matters lab. The concept was simple: they provided a cohort of third year students with a raw material (unscoured sheep fleece), gave them a limited amount of information about it, and let them work to develop a product idea. These students had no agricultural background and at first were quite taken aback by the odoriferous Rideau Arcott fleeces!

The students were not only given information about the theoretical potential in wool; Tara made sure they saw the human side of the raw material as well, sharing some of the challenges faced by Canadian sheep farmers and the need for them to diversify their revenue streams. The students also watched videos from processors, sheep farmers and shearers (you can watch the videos on her YouTube channel).

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Tara found the students’ curiosity “inspiring” and their energy “terrifying!” She says their research and enthusiasm was inspiring as they worked through challenges with the somewhat unpredictable raw material. Up until this point, the students had generally not had to contend with differences in batches of material when developing project ideas, but the raw wool fleeces showed natural variation that had to be accounted for in their designs. Rather than having a limited amount of material, with raw fleece, there is an over-abundance of raw material, but many inconsistencies between batches. Scouring provided its own challenges, with one group attempting to use a power washer to clean their fleece! Another group decided to work with the raw wool, to save themselves the scouring difficulties, but then they needed to work to overcome the smell of the dirty fleece in their product. Apparently, beeswax neutralized the smell better than any synthetic product. Final product ideas ranged from fire blankets to flower pots to lampshades—with an examination of how texture impacts light transfer. Tara will be revisiting this project with the students in September and is excited to see what further ideas have been generated.

After Tara’s presentation, the floor was opened to questions. Kim asked if Tara could see potential in collaboration with other educational institutions. Tara praised the openness, innovation, and imagination she can see in academia. Farmers and producers can be reluctant to change their methods, preferring to keep doing what works, as efficiency is key in farming. Educational institutions have the freedom to innovate and experiment with new methods. Other commenters wondered about collaborations with engineering schools. One member commented that there are many people getting into farming, and fibre farming in particular, who are first generation farmers who may not be as tied to the old, proven ways of doing things. She wondered how to foster connections between these folks. Tara encouraged her to be out there, open, and visible about trying new practices and getting the conversations started.

We then moved into a discussion of regenerative agriculture and the role that sheep can play. Bison used to be the main ruminant on the Prairies and the ecosystem evolved around their presence. To regenerate the land, it’s necessary to mimic the action of bison. Sheep can play that role and are smaller and easier to handle than cows! Tara rotationally and intensively grazes the land she stewards. She monitors the vegetation frequently, noting how much and what the sheep are eating and how large the litter layer is getting, while making sure that the grazing is not so intensive that dirt is exposed (as that brings risk of greater erosion). She moves her sheep frequently. One comment stuck with me: she isn’t just farming sheep, she is stewarding water, ensuring the landscape is in prime condition to absorb every drop of rain that falls. She also “bale grazes,” letting the sheep spread feed, and sees regrowth of alfalfa from bale leftovers.

Another aspect of her management involves protection of riparian areas. By keeping the sheep away from the wetland banks and stream edges, she protects the biodiversity of these areas and also protects her sheep from parasites, thus reducing the need for de-worming.

A key part of the prairie ecosystem used to be wildfire. She uses mechanical mulching to mimic some of the effects of fire, clearing areas and managing undergrowth. Through this action, in just a few years, she’s seen the return of red-tailed hawks to her land, as well as little brown myotis bats (also called little brown bats) and other insectivores. The flora has also changed, with the reappearance of prairie smoke (old man’s whiskers), some smaller prairie plants that need less competition, and regrowth of once-endemic tallgrass prairie species.

This discussion of fire harkened back to the beginning of the evening, when Kim had recommended the book Fire Weather, by John Vaillant, and encouraged us all to consider the climate changes we are currently experiencing.

In summary, Tara encouraged us to all talk to each other across the country. Canada is huge, and regional context is important, but ideas and solutions can be generated everywhere. We need to have conversations between crafters and producers, and producers across the country need to share with each other, to support a healthy wool industry with climate-beneficial practices.

Show and Tell

To start show and tell, Kim showed us a skein of yarn she’d dyed a rich brown colour using black walnuts she had collected while walking her dog around her neighbourhood. She commented that black walnuts are a simple dye as no mordant is needed with them.

A member shared her knitting work-in-progress: A pair of two-at-a-time mittens worked in a rainbow striped yarn that is a souvenir from her trip to Wales. She recommended the Tin Can Knits app where she found the pattern, called The World’s Simplest Mitten Pattern.

Another member shared her embroidery work-in-progress on a large hoop. She is depicting the vagus nerve and working mostly in tambour stitch, which the maker said is a fast technique.

A couple of members were spinning for the then on-going Tour de Fleece event (where spinners spin every day of the Tour de France cycling race). One held her bobbins of incredibly fine singles up to the webcam, sharing her work from the previous 11 days of spinning. She’s working with a fifty percent camel down fifty percent silk blend in autumnal colours and is hoping to be able to make the Phantom Fuzz coverup (Ravelry link) if her final meterage cooperates.

A member shared her grey wool Kinsol shawl, an Elizabeth Elliott design published by Digits & Threads in 2022. The shawl is an asymmetric triangle that uses texture to depict the timber frame of the eponymous historic rail trestle on Vancouver Island.

And finally, another member commented that she is currently designing a baby blanket and struggling with some knitting geometry. We have seen her work in the past and look forward to being awed by her new project in a future Studio Hours session.

Photo courtesy Shelly Nicolle-Phillips.

Copyright © Sarah Thornton except as indicated.
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About Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton is a connector - she loves bringing people and ideas together, especially over local fibres and foods. When not teaching college Biology labs, she knits, spins, designs, teaches, and occasionally weaves in her new studio space on Vancouver Island. She's also a cyclist, skier, hiker, and gardener! Find her patterns and classes at sarahthornton.ca and @sarsbarknits on Instagram.

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