• Updated Website Address: LocalBanquet.org
  • Looking Back on a Decade of Maple Innovation
  • Listening to Farmers’ Voices in the Ecosystem Services Discussion
  • Updated Website Address: LocalBanquet.org

    We've changed our website. Please update your bookmarks to LocalBanquet.org LocalBanquet.org is where you will now find the latest Local Banquet stories, a new Story of the Day update feature, features from the archives, and information on how to contribute to Local Banquet if you're interested in writing about Vermont agriculture. 

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  • Looking Back on a Decade of Maple Innovation

    Back in 2007, Local Baquet ran an article by Bonnie Hudspeth on maple innovation and production in Vermont. Since then, maple production in Vermont has tripled to 1.8 million gallons a year and innovation seems to have entered a new golden (or perhaps amber) age. We did a quick maple innovation news round up for 2018 / 2019 to help everyone keep up with the some of the trends. 

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  • Listening to Farmers’ Voices in the Ecosystem Services Discussion

    In 2015, the USDA funded a project for UVM researchers to engage in discussions with Vermont farmers about the idea of being paid for ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are things farmers do that improve the environment for everyone, a common example is grass-based farms capturing carbon in the soil as a way to combat climate change. Some services happen naturally through sustainable farming, others take more of an incentive to implement, and either way some policy makers believe that farmers shoudl be compensated for their contribution. 

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Last Morsel—A Slow Tan

Sarah and Rick Scully
Sarah and Rick Scully

Written By

Caroline Abels

Written on

February 10 , 2016

Sheep aren’t raised for their skins, but the soft pelts that are a byproduct of meat and wool production are a fluffy reward for farmers and homesteaders who spend many hours tending their flocks.

For years, local shepherds have had to send their pelts out of state to be tanned. Without a local tannery in the state, most Vermonters have relied on facilities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but the cost of shipping skins there are high, and the tanneries use odoriferous chemicals.

Now a new business in Randolph is offering custom natural tanning of sheep and goat skins. Vermont Natural Sheepskins was started by Sarah and Rick Scully in an effort to provide a local, chemical-free tanning alternative.

The couple was a few years into raising sheep of their own in Tunbridge when Sarah discovered she was having skin reactions to the chemicals used in the commercial tanning of her sheepskins. “I came to this as a frustrated customer,” Sarah says.

One day she was searching online for an alternative when she came across a woman in England who invented a way to tan sheepskins using a particular type of tree bark. (She doesn’t reveal what type it is, for business reasons.) Sarah and Rick went to England to learn the woman’s unique process, and so far they are the only Americans who use it commercially. In fact, Vermont Natural Sheepskins could be the only chemical-free sheep and goat tannery in the U.S.

Sarah was a full-time librarian at Dartmouth College when she decided to open the tannery. She has no background in tanning, but it helps that she has “farm cred”: she and Rick raise a few Shetlands at home and a Navajo-Churro. (The finished sheepskins for sale on their website come from local butchers who would otherwise throw them away.)

Like their mentor, the Scullys consider the tannin they use to be proprietary information, but Sarah says the process is similar to the traditional oak bark process of tanning. Both processes take longer than chemical tanning but leave no odor on the sheepskin.

At the Randolph shop, skins soak in the tannin solution for one to four weeks. Prior to that they are cleaned in industrial washing machines, and the fat on the backs of them is shaved off. After soaking in the tannin, the skins are pinned to wooden boards to dry, and a sanding machine makes the back of the skins feel soft and supple. Finally, the edges are trimmed with a razor blade to give the skin that “sheep shape” that people expect from a sheepskin rug.

Although Vermont Natural Sheepskins has only been open since the fall of 2015, word has gotten out, and Sarah is busy. Roughly 80 percent of her customers are from New England but she also gets skins mailed to her from other parts of the country.

On the day I visited, Jennifer Megyesi of Fat Rooster Farm in South Royalton was dropping off a dozen sheepskins and a few goat skins. She said she is thrilled to have a chemical-free alternative and is glad to avoid expensive shipping costs.

“This is in my backyard,” Jennifer said. “I’m five miles away. It’s awesome.”

For more info visit vermontnaturalsheepskins.com

About the Author

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels is the editor of Local Banquet and the founder-editor of Humaneitarian.org, a website that inspires people to buy and eat humanely raised meat.

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Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.