The organizers call it a festival, which promises frivolity. But they're also shepherds, so the mood actually is rather pastoral. In the madness that is May, this is smart marketing.

The Shepherd's Harvest Sheep and Wool Festival returns this weekend for its 11th year at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Lake Elmo. For flock owners, it's a working conference. For fiber artists, it's a vibrant sales floor. For the public, it's a chance to learn about origins, whether it's a lambswool sweater or a lamb chop.

And how many times have you seen a spinner making a skein of fiber from rabbit fur -- as the rabbit sits in her lap?

"The rabbit just thinks it's getting a great massage," said Julie Mackenzie of Great Wool Farm in Sauk Centre, Minn.

The event began after small flock owners, whose focus was on fleece, felt overlooked at breeder gatherings more devoted to raising lamb for meat. So they started a Small Flock Conference, which is just about the cutest name ever for a convention.

The conference gave owners of fewer than 100 sheep a forum for learning management and care of fiber, and for attracting customers, said Mackenzie, who bought her farm six years ago.

"When I began the transition from being a city dweller to a farm owner, I couldn't have done this without learning through this network," she said. Moreover, she had realized that while she was building a healthy Internet market for her fleece, "I wasn't connecting with Minnesota customers." The festival, always on Mother's Day weekend (also known as the fishing opener) helps her to fulfill both needs.

The festival has grown steadily, even as the shepherds' world has shifted. Margins for those who raise lambs for food are getting squeezed because the cost of feed and land is increasing while the price of meat remains the same, Mackenzie said. "But small flock ownership is rising because of the growing interest in fiber arts."

The first year perhaps 500 people came; last year, she estimated an attendance of 5,000. "But it's free, so we're never sure," she said, laughing. "We just run out and count cars." It is a homespun festival in many ways, "a handful of people running around unfolding chairs and setting up tables."

The Shepherd's Harvest is educational as well as artistic.

The Fiber Sandwich is a new event in which silk, alpaca, cotton, buffalo, llama and camel fibers will be layered like a sandwich, then peeled off in sections for each spinner. The resulting skeins will be auctioned at 2 p.m. Sunday to benefit Heifer International.

Sheep-shearing and working dog demonstrations will go on throughout both days. You can buy a fleece still "on the hoof," then learn how to clean and prepare it for spinning.

There are 21 classes, including two with acclaimed designer Annie Modesitt demonstrating her whimsical and achingly romantic designs (class sizes are limited; to register, go to Chef John Michael Lerma will share secrets for succulent lamb both days. Northfield shepherd and author Catherine Friend will read from one of her books, "Hit by a Farm," at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

In addition, the festival runs jointly with the Llama Magic Festival, which features both llamas and alpacas, some of them for sale. Your kids will want one. You've been warned.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185