ABC Ranch is located in Audrain County, Missouri, and we grow corn and soybean row crops, maintain a flock of 15 Merino and Rambouillet sheep, a herd of 40 angora rabbits and after dispersing our cattle operation two years ago we have converted two of our outbuildings for running the wool processing mill. I also teach felting classes here at the farm and around Missouri and Kansas.
PROJECT DESCRITPION AND RESULTS
Our goal was to establish a cottage industry custom processing mil that could supply small local producers, regardless of the fiber type they produced, with a marketable product at a reasonable cost and aid the individual who only wanted a single fleece done to their particular specifications without an extra charge for not having a minimum quantity. We have a single man grain farm operation and had recently sold the remainder of our cattle that left us with a couple of buildings we could utilize for the mill. Our flock of 20 sheep and 40 angora rabbits were giving us enough fiber for our own use and some animals to sell. I worked outside the home and an opportunity cam along to buy a used picker, carder and felting machine for $14,000. Using free family labor we closed in the two buildings for fiber washing, picking and carding for $11,935. The people we purchased the equipment from referred any new customers and repeat business to us. The carder needed some refurbishing and we hired a textile engineer to overhaul the machine. The first year was a lot of trial and error learning the equipment and setting up a workable sequence for handling each customer’s fiber. The equipment required a lot of hands on adjustment with any change of fiber type and put out a usable product – but not a product to brag about. We began to research carding companies and evaluating their end products and pricing. The bottom line was our carder was not capable of consistently producing a product we could be proud to return to our customers. We chose three companies we were happy with and visited them. They had done my fibers in the past and I was well pleased with the results. They were very helpful in explaining the process and showing us the equipment – which was all very large industrial type machinery. The last mill we visited was a cottage industry in Michigan I had found on the internet and we had emailed each other and discovered we had the same problems. They had hired the textile engineer who had gone through our carder previously and he had designed a new carder for them that they were about to test. We brought some fiber with us and ran it through with fabulous results. Carl and I came back to Missouri and discussed the machine, as it was a big investment; we went back to Michigan and ran over sixty pounds of various types of fiber through the prototype carder and every batch was wonderful. We decided to get a loan and purchase the machine. At that time we applied to the bank for a loan and for the SARE grant. The machine is operating beyond our expectations and we are now getting repeat customers and they are recommending us to their friends, we can take our product anywhere and stand behind what we sell. It is competitive with any similar product being sold in the US today. The carder we are now using outperforms both in quantity and quality any other cottage industry carder we have seen. Customers send back wonderful comments with their checks on the quality of the processed fibers we are sending out and the time savings is dramatic – we can do in one hour what used to take three hours.
The fiber business has a network of people all over the country with friends, guilds and businesses. Theses are people we work with again and again and reputation will keep you in business – one bad comment overshadows many good ones and bad comments are hard to overcome. We work with all our customers finding out exactly what they are looking for in an end product – without fiber knowledge you cannot do this. Expose yourself to classes, groups, fairs, any type of fiber related area and listen to the comments around you, ask questions, even if you are not an expert, try various ways to use fibers to find out what does and does not work. When you take on the responsibility of providing a service for someone you must be able to fulfill their request and know you have done it to the best of your ability.
Since acquiring the new carding mill we have had two other investors come and visit and given them all the information we can. There have also been many calls for information and advice with problems working with fiber and we will answer all that we have knowledge on. The two who visited also went on and purchased carders. With the visits and calls we have also gained new shared knowledge from then which we pass on. Our customer base has increased twenty two percent over the previous year. We still maintain our local customers but I get from many other states through referrals. It is through learning that we grow and become better at what we do. We have also had the local schools, library groups, spinning guilds, local clubs and single customers over for tours. Bonnie gives classes in various areas of the fiber field both at the ranch and at fiber related events; she is active in many groups and participates in various art exhibitions.
Producers in agriculture share knowledge and grow in this ever changing environment this is not a business where you are the only one who can do it correctly – any one can – therefore, you sustain yourself through honesty, hard work and a job well done. We will be happy to answer any questions for anyone wanting to get started or having problems.
Our website is now up and running, the programmer Bonnie hired did not get it done in a timely manner so she took a class in web design at the local community R-VI school and did it herself. You can check it out at www.abcranch.com.
I am giving a free educational talk on fiber preparation at the World Sheep Festival in Bethel, Missouri this Labor Day Weekend and I will do this every year at this event. The facility will always be open for visitors and all questions will be answered to the best of my ability.