CRABTREE, Ore. — Vickie Manns’ goal is to raise sheep that produces wool so fine it feels soft next to the skin.
When she first saw Merinos 32 years ago while living with her husband’s family on a sheep and cattle station in New South Wales, Australia, she knew instantly that they would give her the wool she wanted.
But everyone, including her husband, told her she couldn’t raise Merinos in Oregon’s Willamette Valley because it rained too much. She tried anyway and made it work.
Manns lives with her husband, Peter, on the 20-acre farm in Crabtree that her dad inherited from her grandfather. Born and raised a city girl in nearby Albany, she got started in her livestock adventure years ago when someone gave her an orphan lamb. Her learning process has been trial-and-error.
“There wasn’t anyone raising Merinos in Oregon when I bought my first ram and two ewes that originated from Mendenhall Wool Ranch in Loma Rica, California,” Manns said. “Of course, like everyone said it would, the first two years the fleece was ruined when it felted on their backs from too much rain.
“I put rainproof coats on them thinking just keeping the rain off would solve the problem but my fleece quality didn’t improve until I changed my shearing time.”
She gets the best results now by shearing right after the cold, dry period near the end of winter before the spring rains start.
The Merino, instrumental in southwestern Spain’s development in the 15th and 16th centuries, was further refined in the late 18th century in the hot, dry, semi-arid areas of Australia. The breed is prized for its fine wool used in making lingerie and high-fashion garments. Manns’ Merino wool tested between 15.5 to 18 microns. The finer or lower the number of microns, the softer and more expensive the wool.
“I am constantly looking and trying to find wool processing mills close to home so I can keep the money in Oregon but so far haven’t found any that are prepared for the extra strength grease cutting, et cetera, that it takes to wash and further process the Merino’s wool,” Manns said. “I do my own dying and then send my wool to Canada because shipping is cheaper than sending it to the East Coast.”
Once it is processed into roving and yarn, she sells it at fiber arts shows such as the Scio Fat Lamb and Wool Show, Black Sheep Gathering and the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival.
The Merino averages 99-220 pounds for ewes and up to 250 pounds for rams. Manns has had to make several adjustments to accommodate her 5-foot-2 frame and Crabtree’s annual 49 inches of rainfall. To stay ahead of the ever-present problem with foot rot she trains her rams to lift their feet like horses.
“I realize that the Merino is a specialty flock in the Willamette Valley and not a commercial one, but I love everything about them,” Manns said. “When you are determined, you can make things happen.”
Manns can be reached by email at email@example.com.