I am so excited to introduce you to Elena Miller-ter Kuile, a shepherdess from La Jara, Colorado. Elena is continuing a six-generation tradition of caring for the land and animals on her ancestral farm. And, boy, does she have sheep! So many beautiful breeds and fun stories--including a happy (and hilarious) birth story you won't soon forget.
I met Elena through Facebook, when her yarn came across my news feed. I immediately messaged her and we had a wonderful phone conversation about sheep, kids, and what it's like to hang out in Ithaca, NY. . . . as it turns out, Elena was out here in my hometown for a few years earning her degree at Cornell. I think you're going to love Elena's yarn--its so soft and lustrous. The yarn is not a blend; instead, it's from cross-bred sheep: California Variegated Mutants (CVM) crossed with Wensleydale and CVM crossed with Merino. You can read more about Elena's interest in biodiversity below.
I hope you enjoy getting to know Elena and and her beautiful flock! We have several crosses and colors of Cactus Hill Farm yarn in the Flock Farm Yarn Shop. Enjoy!
Cactus Hill Farm
Interview with Elena Miller-ter Kuile
KTS: I understand Cactus Hill Farm is a multi-generational venture, making you a 6th generation rancher. So, can you tell us a little bit about the farm's history and those who came before you?
Elena: Cactus Hill Farm is a 6th generational farm. Our family was of Hispanic descent and moved their sheep and wagons and families up from what is today Northern New Mexico into Colorado in the 1850's-1870's as part of the land grants originally offered by the Mexican government to their northern settlers. After the Mexican American War, Colorado and New Mexico became part of the United States and my family became U.S. citizens. We always joke we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. My ancestors were sheepherders, ranchers and carpenters. My great great grandfather J. Lewis Rivera was one of Colorado’s first electoral votes as well as one of Colorado's wealthiest landowners. There are many wonderful stories as well as many struggles as my Hispanic culture and community have worked to survive despite cultural changes and losses of land and water. Growing up, it was always fun to hear the old stories of the generations who came before and what life was like here through the generations. I am of course a total mutt, with my mother's largely Dutch side immigrating from Central America of all places!
KTS: You keep a number of different sheep breeds and crosses. Aside from the fun and intrigue, what are the advantages of having such a diverse flock? And do you have a favorite breed thus far?
Elena: Biodiversity is often missing in our modern agricultural systems. Some sheep breeds naturally are more resistant to certain diseases and problems and having that biodiversity can help a flock be more resilient when bad things happen. One year we sadly lost some lambs to a campylobacter outbreak, we had vaccinated all of the sheep, but it still happened. It was clear the biodiversity paid off as our losses could have been much higher and only some of the breeds were affected.
As far as favorite breeds they are all so different it is hard to have favorites. The Merinos of course have dreamy soft fiber, but they can sometimes be more passive mothers and gain slower. I love the longwools for their wonderful luster and the great lock structure, but they can be naughty when it comes to fences and escaping. I think I like all the breeds for their different attributes. Having a diverse herd can mean more work in some ways, but it's fun to have all these wonderful wool and sheep characters mixed into one flock.
KTS: Are there any specific shepherd stories you'd like to share: something touching, funny, or just really indicative of life with sheep?
Once I saw a ewe having a baby and it was presented badly, there was only a tail showing. I had my dad come and help me as sometimes it’s nice to have help when pulling a ewe. He went in to pull the lamb, but as he reached for it, it suddenly went flying out across the barn! Like “boom”! Right out of the ewe, flying through the air. The lamb was fine, but it was such a funny thing my dad and I started to giggle. Since we already had the ewe down and she was clearly having multiple babies we decided just to help her with the rest in case she had more problems. So dad went in to grab the next lamb and it also came out flying across the barn. By then we were both in total hysterics. He went to pull the third lamb and it also flew across the barn. By then, we couldn’t stop laughing. We were both on our knees just laughing our heads off at these flying lambs coming out of this ewe. We kept telling each other to "stop laughing, we need to concentrate" and make sure the lambs are ok. Well the end of the story is that this ewe raised a lovely set of triplets and dad and I had a hilarious laugh in the middle of the night at this wonder sheep and her projectile babies.
KTS: It turns out that we have Ithaca, NY in common: I grew up there and you have an agricultural degree from Cornell--such a small world! So, what prompted you to move back to your own home town and work on the ranch with your dad, Alan?
Elena: Ithaca is such a beautiful place and I'm so happy I got to spend a few years there. To be honest, my degree started out in international agriculture. My goal was to work overseas. I was so privileged to be able to travel around the world with a program called the International Honors Program. As I traveled, I started to realize the hypocrisy of traveling to other countries to tell them how they should be doing things when we at home are so bad at our own natural resources and agricultural management. I just realized how important it was to model sustainable agriculture here at home. The United States is a leader in so many ways and I just really hope someday we can be a leader for real positive changes in environmental stewardship. I came home with the revelation that we need more young people going into agriculture, but doing things to really rethink agriculture with a focus on sustainability and regeneration. Of course, I also have such a strong connection to my home and wanted to honor the legacy of my family and this farm as well.
KTS: What are your plans for 2022 and/or the future? Anything new on the horizon?
Elena: Well I am excited to be having a new baby in just 4 weeks!! Meanwhile I am just trying to keep lamb babies healthy and me healthy as we are lambing and I am waddling around. I am always working to improve our flock and farm. A couple of years ago we finalized putting the farm into a conservation easement and now we hope to host some youth groups on the farm for tree plantings. We are always working to improve our sheep genetics and improve our soil health. We are excited to be offering some new products here soon, such as some finished wool products and organic wheat and flour. One of my biggest goals for this coming year is to offer some internship opportunities for young people wanting to learn more about ranching and fiber. And also to be offering more community events on the farm such as some classes.
KTS: Where can yarn-lovers find you online? And, if spinners would like to purchase fresh fleece from you, what's the best way to get in touch?
Elena: Yes! I am on Instagram @cactushillfarm // on Facebook/cactushill and our website is www.cactushillfarm.com If we are busy on the farm (like now during lambing), it may take awhile for me to post and ship products, but usually I try to have new fleeces posted weekly.