Living a dream on a farm in Mount Airy

Howard Neighbors

May 12, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

My children are living my dream," said Gail Willie, of her life on a 52-acre Mount Airy farm in Howard County. "I grew up in a rowhome in Catonsville."

Now, Gail and her husband, Adam, wake up each morning and greet seven horses, one steer, two cows, one pig, eight sheep, three dogs and eight cats.

The Willies' property is designated an agricultural preservation farm, which means it is protected and cannot be parceled and sold to developers. The Willies bought it in 2001, though they have been involved in agricultural pursuits throughout the years spent raising their children, Eric, 24, and Kristen, 21, in Glenwood.

"We started with 4-H, raising rabbits, then graduated to sheep and pigs," said Gail. Next, they raised cattle through a dairy lease, which involves renting land to raise animals.

"My sister and I -- we were never big on video games," said Eric, who, like his sister, graduated from Glenelg High School. Kristen was Howard County's Farm Queen in 2002. Eric, an Eagle Scout and recent graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in government and politics, says he has been "outside my entire life."

Recently, he helped his mother deliver two sets of twin lambs, one April 4 and the second April 18.

Gail, a nurse at Sandy Spring Friends School, had a book on the subject and referred to it throughout the births. One lamb was in a breech position, and Eric had to assist with some muscle.

"Just helping my Mom live her dream," he said.

Of the lambs' births, Gail said, "It's amazing -- it's gorgeous!"

Her husband, Adam, is no stranger to animal behavior and management. Most mornings, he feeds the livestock while Gail gets off to work. He retired in 1999 from the Baltimore police force, where he specialized in training dogs for the K-9 unit. Today, he teaches dog obedience at 4-H clubs and to other dog owners.

"When you're looking at the behavior of animals in general -- from the smallest to the largest -- so many things transfer from one species to another," he said.

Still, how does one make the jump from rabbits to, for example, steers?

"People are always willing to share their information, and continue the legacy [of farming]," Adam said. "When you come to the fair, there's a whole network of people willing to help you."

He speaks not only of the Howard County Fair, but the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, held last weekend at the Howard County Fairgrounds. For the past four years, Gail has been head of hospitality for the festival, preparing and serving meals and snacks to 100 to 150 volunteers, judges, and their children who have tagged along.

"Mom feeds everybody," Eric said.

Each year, the festival attracts 35,000 to 40,000 visitors who come for everything from the breed judging and the sheep-to-shawl contest to workshops, fine-arts competitions and vendors. Adam has a booth at the fair, displaying his hand-carved, wooden signs, blanket trunks, chests, tack boxes and more. He is one example of the many artisans attracted to the festival -- and the interesting mix of farming and art that occurs there.

Gail's weaving is another example. She became involved in raising sheep for their fleece because of a desire to weave. Gail's daughter was in a pony club with the daughter of the Sheep and Wool Festival's chairman, Gwen Handler, and Gail saw some of Handler's woven work. She enrolled in the weaving classes Handler held at her home.

Handler encouraged Gail to try raising sheep. Today, Gail raises Leicester Longwool sheep, a rare breed known for its long, lustrous fleece. According to the Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association Web site, the wool is highly valued by hand spinners and weavers because of its "handle," or feel, and its ability to accept dye. The site also says worsted wool clothing, with its elegant finish and durability, has been made from Leicester Longwool fleece since the Middle Ages.

The Willies' sheep are shorn twice a year, in August and February. "Shearing is an art," Gail said. "It can be very stressful; the blades are sharp, and you can nick the animal."

Gail hires a professional shearer, who can do in 20 minutes what it took the Willies four hours to accomplish.

"And that's with Mom screaming not to hurt her baby," Eric said.

It takes two shearings -- 20 to 25 pounds of fleece -- to make a blanket comforter. Last year, from the three sheep Gail raised, she sent 73 pounds of wool to be processed. Processing involves cleaning and then "carding" the wool, both to remove impurities and tangles, and loosen and align the fibers for spinning. The wool is spun and returned as yarn, which Gail dyes.

The end product is as strong and vibrant as the thread that runs through the Willie family -- the one that ties them to the land, their animals, and each other.

Correction: In last week's column, I made an error in describing the words that are behind the acronym NAMI. The organization's correct name is National Alliance on Mental Illness. Please accept my sincere apology for this inaccuracy.


Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of?

If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it. Janet brings a wealth of writing experience and knowledge of Howard County to her position.

E-mail Janet at, or call 410-313-8276.

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