Entrepreneurship and Autism: goats, sunflowers and giant blankets

Cashmere Cashmere everywhere…on our clothes and in our hair…..

It’s almost time!  Yesterday, clumps of cashmere came off into our hands as we reached out for Johnny CASHmere while feeding the barn animals.  Johnny the goat has the most beautiful thick white coat of curly cashmere, and he was the first to begin shedding last year. We were unprepared for the copious amounts of billowing cashmere in the air for two weeks last spring, as we had understood that we had 6 whole months to gather the cashmere.. not so! Although cashmere goats might begin to shed in December, it is barely noticeable until it all jumps ship within a couple of short weeks in mid March. If you blink your eyes, or if it rains a lot during that time, you’ll miss it!

So we are determined to gather the cashmere this year, before it lands on the fences and branches of the trees, or in the nests of house wrens and chickadees. We have two goat stanchions now, thanks to the handiwork of Brent and Mindy….  the stanchion holds the goat still while it is groomed.  We offer them treats for standing still for us, and we’ll comb them until the cashmere is all safe inside ziplock bags.

Brent in the workshop building a goat stanchion

We have big plans for Johnny’s and the rest of the goat’s cashmere this year! We have been experimenting with felting fiber this past winter, and we are finding that the cashmere felts nicely as a first layer with a top layer of our alpaca fiber.  How does it sound to have a felted alpaca hat with an inside layer of cashmere against your temples?  We think it sounds wonderful. So along with the hats, the guys are experimenting with felted water bottle bags, felted soaps, and felted phone cases.  Add that to our 20 varieties of sunflowers, some hand-built wren bird-houses, and a variety of hot and spicy homegrown peppers, and we ‘re sure to have a fun season at local grower’s markets!

Our first attempt at a felted phone case!

Living independently with autism isn’t just about learning to cook and get along with housemates.  The employment piece is one of the most difficult to figure out.  Paying bills uses up most of the guy’s monthly social security checks, so it sure would be nice to have some spending money! Plus, it just feels good to have a job.  Unemployment among adults on the spectrum is really high.  Navigating social situations…. overcoming sensory issues … finding a job and succeeding in an interview… and convincing an employer that you are worth taking a chance on,   in spite of your differences.  It’s not easy.

No, these are not our hats. We will pick one style and give it a try!

So we decided to take the entrepreneurial approach here on the farm. Last year we grew a small field of sunflowers… 20 different varieties, about a thousand flowers.  The guys were introduced to dirt… on their hands, on their clothes… and they were introduced to sweat!… it is really humid here in Pennsylvania in the summer.  and ….  they did OK!  We cleared fields, formed raised beds, and planted  seeds in rows.  We were rewarded with a beautiful field of sunflowers, and we harvested them, cut off the leaves, put them in buckets and delivered them to friends and local businesses.

We learned that EVERYONE loves sunflowers.  Sunflowers are easy to grow.   Sunflowers are easy to harvest.  We were convinced.  This year, we’ll try succession planting so they bloom over the entire growing season, and we are tripling the size of the fields.

There are several local grower’s markets that we will approach and ask to be vendors.  The sunflowers will be our main product, but we have a good strong start on the fiber items as well. Setting up a table at a market and selling our items and meeting people is actually what the guys look forward to the most… they love to tell their stories. It’s taken a year or so for the guys to embrace this idea…. this was not the dream job for most of them.  But watching Brent and Ray, who love being outdoors, work hard and make handfuls of cash on delivery days last summer… well that was all it took!  We shall see what this year brings, but right now we are all chomping at the bit to get started.

Brent with his new blankets ready for the fair tomorrow!

Presenting at the Reinventing Quality Conference in Baltimore, with the 'Lucky Charms' blanket

We can’t end a post on entrepreneurs without talking about our most amazing entrepreneur here at Juniper Hill…. our wonderful hardworking friend, Brent. Brent has been crocheting blankets for over twenty years.  Originally, he just wanted to crochet blankets for people who would trade him for car keys, his true obsession.  But these last few years, Brent has discovered that he can actually sell his blankets for money , and it has inspired him to work harder and choose his colors more deliberately.  You can learn about Brent on his Facebook page,  Blankets by Brent.  Last year, Brent presented at the Reinventing Quality Conference in Baltimore, MD.  And tomorrow, March 3rd, Brent will be selling his blankets at the ‘Celebrate Differences Film Festival and Art Exhibit’ in Media, PA. He just crocheted six blankets in less than 3 weeks, and they are just gorgeous. He is quite excited!  Although the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not anyone will actually buy the blankets is overwhelming at times for him, he has learned, through constant reminding, that there will be another fair along soon, and more folks to buy his blankets… and a space at a Grower’s Market this spring!

Update** Brent sold every one of his blankets at the fair!  Thanks to all who came out today!!

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