Amy Ross Manko jokingly credits the success of Ross Farm Fibers, her wildly popular yarn shop on Main Street in Washington, to a sandwich.
When Manko served as director of Southwestern Pennsylvania Literacy Council from 2005 to 2012, she ducked into the Upper Crust restaurant on Main Street nearly every day for a special-order sandwich: pepper turkey, cheddar, tomato and honey mustard on a croissant.
Manko ordered the sandwich so often that Upper Crust owner Mark Kennison named it the “Amy Sandwich” and added it to the menu.
Fast forward to 2017. Manko, a fifth-generation farmer who operates the Frank L. Ross Farm in Eighty Four, was searching for a brick-and-mortar space during the Christmas season to sell yarn from her flock of rare and heritage-breed sheep.
Would she consider, asked Kennison, setting up shop in the storage area adjacent to his latest restaurant, Presidents Pub? She could pay her monthly rent in eggs, instead of cash.
Within days, Manko moved into the building. The “pop-up” store has been there ever since.
“I wouldn’t have this business if it weren’t for Mark. Everything you see is because of that turkey sandwich,” says Manko, glancing at the walls covered with rows and rows of skeins of high-end yarn from Ross Farm Fibers and a collection of yarns and fiber from other small yarn companies, mostly owned by women.
But Manko is being modest. In the wool world, she’s sort of a rock star.
Manko, who holds a bachelor’s degree in public relations and a master’s degree in leadership management, grew up helping out on the picturesque 170-acre farmstead, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places. She took the reins at the farm in 2010 when her parents’ health declined and set to work making the business profitable.
“I thought we should be able to do this better. We should work smarter, not harder,’” Manko says.
Her strategy: raise heritage and rare-breed sheep, whose wool is more profitable than wool shorn from commercial sheep. So she began learning everything she could about heritage and rare-breed sheep. And it led to her collaborating with organizations including Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg and the Smithsonian Biodiversity Preservation Projects to devise and implement conservation efforts to ensure endangered breeds don’t die out.
“She’s very smart and creative, and she works hard,” says Heidi Hileman of Peters Township, who was sitting on a comfortable gray couch in the middle of Ross Farm Fibers on a recent Craftsy Wednesday night, knitting a hat. “She’s funny as can be, she’s tireless. She has an amazing ability to be a big-picture thinker, and she takes everything to the next level. She’s a brand. She’s like the Kleenex of the natural-color yarn market, and she’s known nationally for her wool.”
Manko inherited a strong work ethic from her mother, who was the first person in her family to go to college.
“The things she said to me most commonly were that, as a Ross, I had two things: grit and gumption. As long as I remembered that, I could do anything I wanted to,” Manko says.
Manko, alongside her husband, Scott, and their son, Drew, 22, raise 11 breeds of rare and heritage-breed sheep for wool and meat. The flocks include Leicester Longwools, Cotswolds, Romneys, Cheviots, Jacobs, Shetlands and Hog Island sheep. Only about 1,500 Leicester Longwools exist worldwide, and Ross Farm, with 50 Longwools, is home to the second-largest flock in the United States.
They also raise two breeds of hogs, American milking Devon cattle, and poultry, and the farm is home to retired Disneyworld horses and other retired livestock.
Manko, a sought-after instructor and engaging speaker, rattles off fascinating facts about agriculture, wool and rare breeds – Hog Island sheep, for example, are a small, hardy and critically endangered breed that descended from animals brought to Hog Island, a 45,000-acre barrier island off Virginia’s Eastern Shore in the Atlantic Ocean, by settlers in the 1600s. The sheep were abandoned when the settlers left the because of weather conditions.
In addition to selling their yarn at the shop, the Mankos have found success selling at wool festivals throughout the country. They attend 13 national festivals annually, and this year will appear at international shows in Ireland and Italy.
They also offer meats and produce from their livestock, including lamb, pork, beef, eggs and poultry.
The Mankos have played a significant role in Washington County’s farm-to-table movement, and work with businesses and restaurants, including Presidents Pub, Red Pump Spirits and Emerald Valley Artisans, to promote locally sourced food products.
Their meats and produce, including lamb, pork, beef, eggs and poultry, appear on local menus. Kennison, for example, has prepared shepherd’s pie for St. Patrick’s Day from lamb provided by Manko, and hams are available seasonally at the Marketplace at Emerald Valley.
Kennison says Manko’s enthusiasm for sustainable agriculture and her dedication to revitalizing downtown Washington is contagious.
“She’s supported me since I opened my first business on South Main Street. Then, I opened a coffee shop and she brought her meetings there and then she followed me up here to (Presidents Pub), so the opportunity to return the favor and help her get started and make her dream come true is really special,” he says. “She has always believed in downtown Washington and supported it, day in and day out. We believe in a Main Street that is owned and operated by people from here, who believe in here.”
At Ross Farm, the livestock enjoy a free-range lifestyle, and a pair of herding dogs help watch over them. While modern sheep breeds are genetically engineered to grow bigger more quickly, the Mankos’ rare and heritage-breed sheep take nine to 18 months to mature. The Mankos spend a lot of time in the pastures with their flocks, and get to know them well.
Every skein of yarn from Ross Farm is labeled with the photo and name of the sheep from whom the fiber was obtained.
“It’s only fair that we give credit where credit is due,” Scott says. “They worked hard to grow their wool all year long.”
There is little down time for the family. Manko also writes for knitting magazines, and she and Scott host a podcast called “The Transient Wool Merchants.” Drew is a member of the Pennsylvania Young Farmers and Ranchers state committee and serves as the chairman for Washington County’s YF&R.
And plans for expansion are underway at the store. Manko is adding classroom space and installing spinning wheels and looms later this year.
Among the farm’s highlights are an appearance in the New Castle Brown Ale Super Bowl commercial in 2015, where Ross Farm was one of the businesses featured in the beer company’s crowd-funded Super Bowl spot.
Manko notes that at one time, Southwestern Pennsylvania was the number-one producer of sheep, and she wants to help create a viable agricultural atmosphere for other farms and businesses.
“After my parents died, I did an inventory of what’s important to me, and it’s my family, my flock and my farm. So I decided to put all of my efforts into improving the lives of my family, my flock and my farm. That’s what motivates me,” Ross says.
She recalled a piece of artwork her mother gave her to hang in Drew’s room after he was born, which read, “The two things we can give our children are roots and wings.”
“I embraced that with Drew. It’s important to know where you come from and where you’re going, and to always make a plan and work toward it,” Manko says. “I just really love my husband and my son, and I’d rather spend my time with them on the farm than anything else.”