There Once Was a Camel Who Lived on Route 7

By Middlebury Campus

Oliver the camel is not native to Vermont. But then, neither is Judith Giusto, his owner, and she is getting along fine.

“I’m originally from New York City,” Giusto explained.

“I owned a business in New York. Then I adopted a boy as a single mom. I was bringing up a child in New York City, and I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a better way to do this.’”

Giusto’s solution was a farm in Ferrisburg, Vt., where Merino sheep were her animal of choice. She now runs the farm with her 19-year-old son, Montana, and a recently hired farm worker.

“I was learning more about textiles and the animals that produced them,” Giusto said of her choice to focus on fibers. “I wanted to create an artistic expression that people could use every day.”

This concept manifests itself in the scarves and sweaters that Giusto’s knitters create from the fibers harvested at her farm, Round Barn Merinos on Route 7. Like any artist, Giusto likes to draw from a varied palette.

“Sheep are what we all know,” Giusto said.

“You understand their fiber. Then your horizons start to widen, you start to realize that sheep aren’t the only animals that make fiber. You start to realize there are more exotic animals.”

Seventeen years after Giusto purchased Round Barn Merinos, it is now home to about 100 sheep, an alpaca, and a Bactrian camel.

The camel, Oliver, was born in 2002 on a camel farm in Wisconsin. Giusto compares Oliver’s breed to the llamas of Latin America. Like the llamas, Bactrian camels are often used for transportation and milk.

Unlike Dromedaries, the one-humped species, Bactrian camels are also utilized for their fiber, which can be spun and used for textiles.

“If you want a durable fiber for a coat, you shear the whole camel and take the down and the hair,” Giusto explained.

“If you want something very soft, similar to a cashmere scarf, you pluck the camel and separate the down.”

Giusto practices the latter method of fiber collection, a process that begins in early spring.

“He molts like a bird losing its feathers,” Giusto said.

“It doesn’t all come out on day one or two, it happens over the course of about a month. Every evening my son or I will walk him on his halter and one of us will follow, gathering up all his fur.”

The next step is to spin the fiber. Unlike the sheep’s wool, which is spun at Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, Vt., Oliver’s down, classified as an exotic fiber, must be sent to Prince Edward Island in Canada. From there it is sent to the knitters.

“The knitters make it into scarves,” Giusto explained.

“That’s pretty much all I do with his down. When I first got him I was turning it into knitting yarn. He produces about five pounds of down per year. If you turn that into yarn it’s not going very far. But only about three ounces are used in every scarf.”

Oliver’s fiber, while decadent in a scarf, serves practical purposes for the camel itself.

“Bactrian camels come from central Asia,” said Giusto.

“Places like Mongolia, Afghanistan and the Russian Steppes. They have unique coats to get the animals through the winter.”

His native habitat makes Oliver well-suited to Vermont’s climate, but people’s misguided understanding of a camel as a desert species has caused concern.

“It’s interesting,” Giusto stated.

“When you live in a place that is as exposed as my farm is, your life becomes very public whether you like it or not. People complain to animal control, and I have to address those complaints. Once you’ve been reported to animal control you have to explain how you’re not abusing your animals.”

“You could get annoyed,” Giusto admitted.

“But the thing to do is to educate people. Sometimes people complain that the sheep are outside during the winter, and I say, ‘If you lived your life with a wool sweater on, you would be warm.’”

When Giusto receives complaints that Oliver’s water trough is empty in the peak of summer’s heat, she must explain that Oliver, as is appropriate for his breed, receives water once a day, and that he doesn’t take his water from a trough, but from a hose.

But despite people’s ignorance, Giusto is thankful for the visitors.

“People stop all the time,” Giusto said.

“One of the reasons I did get Oliver was to help bring recognition to the farm. Sometimes it’s inundated with people.”

Oliver responds well to the attention. Camels are social animals by nature.

“He is a very intelligent animal,” Giusto said of Oliver.

“He wants people to acknowledge him and he’ll run and play for attention.” This behavior took Giusto, who had been accustomed to sheep, by surprise.

“It was an eye-opener,” Giusto said.

“You begin to believe that animals behave like people. All the other animals on the farm know that Oliver is the largest animal and could hurt them should he choose to. The alpaca integrates with the flock differently. He instinctively takes charge of the flock, and when he thinks that it is in trouble, he will get the sheep and help move them.”

Giusto’s knowledge about animals has grown significantly since her career in New York City and her seemingly random decision to move her life to Vermont.

“People thought I was crazy,” Giusto laughed, of her decision to start a sheep farm.

“They thought it couldn’t be done.”

But Giusto, like Oliver, whose breed is known for its perseverance — they are often utilized as pack animals on Mount Everest — has risen to the challenge.

“It wasn’t like I got up one morning after 30 or 35 years of working in corporate America and decided to be a brain surgeon,” Giusto said. “I’ve never tried to do something so beyond my grasp that it couldn’t be done. But, like I did as a single mom adopting a child, I thought to myself, ‘How hard can this be?’”