Fiber farming, no green thumb necessary
Visitors to Hidden Pastures Luxury Fiber Farm are greeted by Zak the Yak, an attention-craving and gregarious Tibetan yak. Prompted by Natalie Burger, who owns the farm with her husband, Mike, Zak rises from his sleeping place and comes to the fence to be pet.
Like Zak, most of the animals at the Branchville, NJ farm are docile. Natalie and Mike raise Huacaya alpacas, English Angora rabbits, Angora and cashmere goats, Teeswater sheep, and Tibetan yaks, and they harvest 1,500 pounds of fiber a year. “Northern New Jersey is a good place to grow fiber, because we never have extreme heat,” Natalie said.
According to New Jersey’s Farmland Assessment Act, Natalie and Mike had to grow a farm product for profit to maintain their property’s valuable status as a working farm. “Neither of us have a green thumb, so we had to think of something else we could do,” said Natalie. She had grown up learning fiber arts and caring for animals, so growing fiber was the logical choice.
The couple began with a small herd of six alpacas in 2004; the next year, they doubled their herd and added breeding males. For the past eight years, they’ve maintained a herd of 100 alpacas, and over time, they added the goats, rabbits, sheep, and Tibetan yaks. Four llamas act as guards against coyotes and bears (always watchful, they make an alarm call when a predator is seen, prompting the alpacas to run for the barn), and Great Pyrenees dogs protect the herds at night.
Alpacas are shorn like sheep every May. In late winter, the goats and yaks shed their fur, which is then collected. The rabbits shed every two to three months. Fiber from the animals is processed, then sold in the farm shop and online. The fiber is available at all stages of processing, from raw fiber to hand-knit caps and gloves.
“I try to create something new every day,” said Natalie. “Spinning, dying, and weaving are my true passions.” She and her daughter, Grace, teach fiber arts classes, from wet felting for beginners to advanced spinning and weaving.
Hidden Pastures is open Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors can photograph the animals for free, but call ahead and make an appointment if you’d like to play with the animals for a small fee. Farm tours are available by appointment. Check out hiddenpasturesluxuryfiberfarm.com for the fiber arts workshops. Find Zak on Facebook @Zak.the.Yak.at.Hidden.Pastures.