It's hard to get Nanney Kennedy to sit down and talk about herself. The Maine native - "I was raised on Damariscotta Lake" - seems to be in constant motion, animatedly discussing new plans and projects, interspersed with philosophical observations. As proprietor of Meadowcroft Farm, she raises 100 sheep for fiber, dyes yarn, produces artful sweaters and blankets, and occasionally sets up training clinics for border collies in the natural amphitheater on her 80-acre property in the town of Washington. But if you accompany her as she walks the farm on an early fall day, checking fences, moving her flock from one pasture to another, judging whether her grass is ready for haying, she'll share her story.
Nanney (a nickname for Anne) credits a family friend for teaching her about farming. "When I was 13, I was mentored by a woman who was married to the agricultural commissioner," she remembers. From her, Nanney learned about animal care and the value of healthy food and a healthy lifestyle.
She went to Bowdoin, where she played varsity lacrosse and earned a degree in the sociology of art. While in college, she also lived for a few months on a farm, helping with lambing and finding out more about animal husbandry. It was in a folklore class, she says, that she had an inspiration that would affect her career path. "I was sitting and listening, fully engaged, when I began to wonder how we can go forward sustainably and build on our history."
After graduation, she spent almost a year in New Zealand, learning about grass farming, going to shearing school, and studying farm economy. Later, she became a night shepherd for the Forbes family estate on Naushon Island, and lived in Nantucket off and on over five years. There, she did research on sheep grazing for conservation management and started the Nantucket Craft Alliance.
In 1988, she bought Meadowcroft Farm. By then she was married with a two year-old son and an older stepdaughter, working on a graduate degree in agriculture and resource economics, while she and her husband restored the property's old farmhouse. Her second son was born in 1989, the same year she acquired her own flock of sheep. But in February 1990, a fire destroyed the house, along with all her academic research; three years later, her husband left.
Since then, she's constructed a new house over a former two-car garage and built a life as a single mother, a farmer, and a crafts entrepreneur. "Trying to figure out a business plan took a long time," she says. She gauged her resources - the grass she could grow, the topography of the farm, the animals she could raise. "It's part inspiration, part planning: How to move the sheep, how to breed the sheep, how to cull the flock. I love creating the systems."
Of course, the animals and the art are interrelated. Nanney raises sheep whose wool meets her exacting standards of firmness, luster, weight, and spinnability. And she manages the farm with an eye toward best environmental practices, whether that means putting extra fencing along erodable slopes and waterways or delaying mechanical haying until ground-nesting birds like bobolinks and killdeers have fledged their young.
The foundation of the burned-down house now holds glass-topped dye vats where she produces her delicately tinted yarns. She uses solar energy instead of fossil fuels to heat the dyes and uses clean Maine seawater instead of chemical salts to fix the colors. She sells the yarns and also incorporates them into her line of blankets and the sweaters she designs and consigns to home knitters.
One goal is to "help consumers understand that they can indulge themselves," with a gorgeous sweater or a beautiful warm blanket, perhaps, "while helping sustain agriculture," she says. Yet she's careful not to "teach or preach about all the idealistic reasons why sustainable solutions matter. If I can create something from nothing, with extreme integrity, all the way through every stage of production, and deliver it to the right customer, who is equally engaged, enchanted, and inspired to know they got a bargain, we all win."
She's brimming with projects - finishing her barn, dreaming about international trade missions for Maine wool growers, constructing an apartment for visiting fiber enthusiasts who might be inspired to apply some of the ideas to their own lives. "The important part," she says, "is becoming a population of critical thinkers who insist on standards that include sustainability, not just marketing fog and mirrors."
When asked about her plans for the future, though, Nanney, ever the farmer, has a down-to-earth answer: "Compost."
Adapted from Shear Spirit: Ten Fiber Farms, Twenty Patterns, and Miles of Yarn, forthcoming from Potter Craft in April 2008.