Beyond Sustenance Farming in Northern Virginia

Beyond Sustenance Farming in Northern Virginia

Only a few take on the challenge of marketing farmed products

Shepherd Cory Suter assists shearer Catherine Fox as a member of his Lambmower crew gets her shearing and hoof trim

Shepherd Cory Suter assists shearer Catherine Fox as a member of his Lambmower crew gets her shearing and hoof trim

There aren’t many real farms left in Fairfax County. Few silos, the stoic monuments to farm operations, remain standing against the sky now to mark where farms once stood. One can find a few dilapidated silos, part of the historic buildings registry of Lorton Prison’s farm operations, at Laurel Hill Park in Lorton. 

Only a few Northern Virginians now attempt making a farm living as development continues to close in, plowing over fields once plowed for crops when life here was agricultural. Farms are replaced with suburban living. A search finds just a few modern farmers here offering herbs or vegetables, often at roadside stands during the growing season. The most well known remaining farms, such as Cox Farm and Frying Pan Park, offer a taste of past farm life more as entertainment than farm products.

Leader of the pack, Elf, accepts shearing even around his face, eyes and ears where his Babydoll Southdown breed produces wool, unlike some bare-faced breeds 


So it’s a bit surprising to learn of a small farm snuggled into a five plus acre plot in Fairfax, called Suters Glen Permaculture Farm. The farm is home base to 15 working sheep and their shepherd, Cory Suter, and his family. The sheep, who work in a “lamb-scaping” enterprise ( are a big part of the story here. In providing their care, Suter adheres to a philosophy called “permaculture farming”. 

While many know of crop growing methods such as organic, hydro-culture, and natural farming, few have heard of permaculture, another type of subsistence farming. Permaculture seeks to minimize disruption to natural systems, and protect organic and natural processes; thereby providing long-term sustainability of the land by using more environmentally friendly methods than conventional farming; applied to crops and livestock. Instead of disrupting natural ecosystems, permaculture attempts to mirror them. Use of such methods might have saved area farms in the early 19th century, when soils were depleted here, well before the Civil War, by over-dependence on and regular planting of tobacco, as a cash crop, ultimately leaving fields non-productive for any crops for years.

We visited modern day Suters Glen at a special time — their annual sheep shearing. Although sheep are generally considered low maintenance in terms of needed care compared to other livestock, shearing is an important requirement. Sheep are typically shorn only once or twice a year for the 10 to 12 years of their lives. Wool is a natural part of the sheep’s makeup, growing continuously to protect them from the weather. In the wild, losing this wool would be accomplished less efficiently by rubbing against trees. For domestic sheep, Spring is the opportune time to shear as preparation for keeping the sheep cooler in the warmer months and reducing the risk of parasitic and other infections and disease. Early Spring can be comically confusing when young lambs are present and who tend to recognize the finished wool bundle from its scent more readily than their actual mother ewes.

Wool can be a significant product at commercial farms which specialize in wool producing breeds. Here there is no ready market for fleece. Suter typically donates his wool to artists or non-traditional schools with interest in artistic and practical skills development. Rather than cash, Suter says he more often receives thanks, or perhaps a nice knitted cap.

At Suter’s farm, the sheep’s primary occupation is as landscapers. Although goats may have the greater reputation for their indiscriminate ability to eat anything, sheep are consummate grazers. They are capable of eliminating thorny brambles, unwelcome invasive tree seedlings, bamboo shoots, and onion grass. Suter explains, “They are better at weeds than lawn grass, depending upon grass seed used…”. (See Connection, May 1-7, 2024, pg 16-17 for more on “lambscaping” activity). Suter says, “Some customers schedule as many as six sessions per year; while most use them once or twice a year, often for the experience of seeing the lamb mowers in action.” The sheep crew ate their way to about $34,000 in landscaping income in 2023, and revenue is expected to increase this year.

In case you have not had the pleasure of getting to know sheep, here are a few facts about them. Sheep are highly social animals, happier in a group, called a flock. In fact, Suter says, lone sheep have been known to die of loneliness. The males are called rams; the females, ewes; and castrated males are wethers. A fleece is the wool from one sheep. They form strong social orders within their flocks, sometimes using “butting” to maintain their ranking positions. Their milk is twice as fatty as cow’s milk; although used in making cheese, the milk is not very appealing to drink. There are more than 200 species of sheep. Suter’s flock are Babydoll Southdown, a species originating in Sussex England, appreciated for their small size, fuzzy faces, and laid back personalities which makes them good pets. Better known species include Merino, from Spain, and Rambouillet, from France, which are known for their fine wools used in clothing; and the Scottish breed, Cheviot, known for their hardiness, white faces, and their wool’s elasticity when used in garments.

Joining Suter at the farm for two days of work, is part-time professional sheep shearer Catherine Fox of Celtic Fox Farm, Amissville Virginia (, who “concentrates on serving small farms in the area.” She is one of only four or five shearers who service the wider Maryland/Virginia metro area. Fox began shearing to care for her own small flock of Alpacas. While sheep are mostly acclimated to the shearing process and accommodating, it still takes a gentle nature, patience, stamina, and muscle to literally up-end and maneuver many individual sheep in a flock for their shearing and hoof trims. Fox is paid a farm visit fee plus $12 to $24 per sheep. Babydoll Southdown sheep, like those at Suter Glen, take longer to shear, having wool on their faces and everywhere, raising the cost of their shearing to the higher fee range. Careful trimming around eyes, ears, and sensitive parts slows the process, making Suter Glen’s flock of 15 a two day job for the part-time shearer. Fox’s farm adds to her income with the sale of eggs from her flock of layers, along with the sheep shearing and horse clipping. As with sheep wool, the Alpaca fiber market is not strong here, with no ready markets or co-ops now in operation that once existed. The federal government once stockpiled wool and fiber for use in making uniforms. Wool was removed from the Pentagon’s list of strategic materials in 1960, according to the Department of Agriculture. Government wool and mohair program subsidies were eventually eliminated in the 1990s. 

How do the sheep feel about the shearing process? Suter says it can be a bit stressful, especially their first time, but for the most part they sit calmly. There is little restraint used and they have the opportunity to watch the shearing of other flock members to allay any fears. Their largest inconvenience may be the withholding of grain and grazing to assure empty stomachs, all four of them in sheep, to lessen the risk of gastric difficulties while they are positioned for shearing. Each sheared sheep eagerly heads to the pasture after shearing to browse. 

With no income from wool, Suter Glen adds a cottage rental and farm tours to increase its revenue stream. The farm’s impressively large blueberry and vegetable house boasts nine different varieties of blueberries and shares acreage with figs, blackberries, persimmons, and pomegranates. 

For many area preschoolers who have visited to tour the farm, Suter’s Glen provides a view into farm life they will find nearly nowhere else in Northern Virginia.