Value-added Sustainable Animal Production with Natural and Organic Leathers

Final Report for FNC05-549

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $5,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Expand All

Project Information



For organic and sustainable animal production, the potential for adding 20 to 40 percent to the overall value of each animal could potentially be realized through natural leather and hair-on hide production and marketing. This project proposed to investigate technical, economic, and environmental aspects of natural leather production for sustainable and organic farms. Summary of the findings is that a natural, non-toxic approach to leather production by using skins from sustainable produced animals was attained in this project. There is a steep learning curve, and labor requirements are high. The second objective of the project was to analyze economic feasibility of a small regional tannery focused on non-toxic natural leather production. Recent developments in research for the leather industry indicate a revolutionary movement to non-toxic methods in the next few years. This would be excellent for the environment and consumers, but would make a small regional tannery economically unfeasible. Yet, a cooperative of regional animal producers could contract with a non-toxic tannery to produce a value added product from the skins and hides of their animals. Contracts with niche market producers of environmentally sensitive clothing and footwear would further add value to the bottom line of sustainable animal farmers.

Why natural, environmentally healthy leather from sustainable animal farms is needed:
• As awareness for sustainable and non-toxic way of living increases, people will require natural leather products more than unsustainable petroleum based garments, shoes, etc.
• Modern tanning methods currently involve toxins that harm people and the environment, whereas a natural process provides healthy and durable products.
• Farmers of sustainably raised animals should realize improved returns from the increased value of the animal skin.
• On the eve of peak petroleum and energy descent should Plan A of “eggs in the basket” of technology fail to hatch, civilization will require the ability to locally produce material for clothing, footwear, bedding, and many other goods that leather and furs can provide. The knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish this are largely lacking…very few people have this knowledge or experience. Each small town would require at least one tannery and larger towns several tanneries.

Background: Farmers and ranchers typical do not directly benefit from the fact that the animals they raise and market have a hide. Animals are bought on-hoof, and the skin or hide is considered a by-product; the farmer does not receive remuneration for the hide. Meat processors and local butchers normally profit by selling the hides to large tanneries or to hide buyers that re-sell and ship the hides to overseas tanneries. The tanning industry adds tremendous value to this “by-product” of animal meat production. The hides are turned into various types of leather or furs and are purchased from the tanneries by industries ranging from garment, shoes, and furniture to automotive and equestrian.

Turning raw hides into leather or furs is a very ancient practice, and is no less complex today than it was thousands of years ago. However, in the last 120 years the “ingredients” applied in the process have sacrificed both human and environmental health and compromised quality. In fact, there are more tanneries on the EPA’s Superfund list than any other business type. Subsequent environmental regulations, and labor costs, led 95% of the U.S. tanning industry to move overseas to countries where such laws are limited or non-existent, and they continue to pollute.

The main culprit of environmental problems in the process is chromium (III, and VI. Chromium III can break down into type VI). Chromium (VI) is prevalent in the modern tanning process. It is a known carcinogen with the following documented human health effects to workers in the tanning industry:

• Death
• Kidney and Liver Damage
• Weakened Immune System
• Lung Cancer
• Skin Rashes
• Alteration of DNA

The finished chrome tanned leather is known to cause skin rashes. According to the EPA, 95% of all leather produced has been tanned with chromium. If you have a leather coat, shoes, hand bag, etc. you have been exposed to chromium (VI). Furthermore, the chrome tanning methods actually weaken the fiber of the hide to render it soft decreasing its durability and longevity, whereas the natural use of oils and vegetable tannins do not weaken the leather, and provide for a healthy, long lasting, flexible, and strong product.

Another problem with the modern tanning methods is the use of sodium sulfide, used in the de-hairing process. This chemical finds its way through the process, into the waste water, finally into waterways. The chemical binds-up oxygen and robs fish and other aquatic life from breathing the oxygen required to live.

In U.S. tanneries much of the hand labor required in the old methods of leather production have been replaced with specialized machinery, although this isn’t necessarily the case in many foreign tanning factories where hand labor is used more extensively.

For this project, I chose to investigate the time honored and ancient practices of natural leather production for potential application in the modern context of organic and sustainable animal production.

Project goal: Investigate the process of natural leather production and determine the feasibility of applying the process through a natural/organic tannery at the farm scale and/or regional scale. If feasible, then identifying sustainably raised animals and organically tanning the hides to result in leather and fur products environmentally superior to other products. Farmers and ranchers would benefit financially by receiving a premium for the hides of these animals.

Process: Thorough literature reviews were conducted on all manner of leather production techniques. Leather tanning trials were conducted first using completely natural and organic methods based on time-honored methods of both wet-scrape and dry-scrape processes. These processes were applied to deer, buffalo, sheep, and a variety of fur-bearers to represent the range of animal hide thicknesses (thin, moderate, and thick hides). Methods were video-taped and documented.

The process for these methods is complex and involved a large amount of oversight, dedication, and labor. A certain level of interpretation is necessary in each step depending on the nuances of each hide. In the case of this project, I did not have the benefit of specialized machinery. I have documented the natural process, using hand labor only, in a short booklet (submitted with this report).

One of the objectives of this project was to research if used machinery from the tanning industry could be retrofitted for the use of producing a natural product in a time frame that would be economically competitive (see in results below).

• Brent Ladd, Project Leader
• Steve Swain, Purdue University Extension Specialist.
• 10 participants in two natural leather making workshops

In summary, this project demonstrated that organic, healthy, non-toxic processes can yield a variety of high quality leathers and furs suitable for clothing, footwear, hand bags, saddles, book bindings, furniture, and many other products. The other aspect of this project was to investigate the feasibility of scaling the process to a regional organic/natural tannery that would benefit sustainable animal farmers. Research and economic analysis show that such a venture could be successful, IF the current tanning industry remains the same and the desire for “green” products continues to rise (see appendix, Page 9: feasibility plan attached). Discussion of the objectives and barriers for such a venture are discussed in detail below.

The natural leather process results in a highly desirable leather; one that is durable, flexible, and long lasting, in addition to being toxin free. The methods involving oil and smoke based tanning where the grain of the skin is removed results in a very soft and breathable material perfect for clothing. However, the process of producing this high quality natural and non-toxic leather has a substantial learning curve and greatly increased time and labor requirement compared with modern chrome tanning methods (for example, see the process worked out in the booklet included). The few tanneries in operation in the U.S., Europe, and U.K. that employ vegetable tanning process guard their tanning process and formulas as hard won “secrets”. The dedication and time necessary to produce a high quality product leads me to believe that it would not be recommended at the farm scale. A regional scale “organic” tannery serving sustainable animal farms may have a greater chance of success. One has to be cognizant that there is a glut of cheap leather coming from India and China into the U.S. and Europe. Success would hinge on securing agreements with companies producing natural footwear and garments (i.e. Birkenstock, Patagonia, Orvis, etc.) to purchase the organic leather at a premium of at least 20%. Informal surveys with “environmentally conscious” local residents show that they are willing to pay a premium for sustainably produced footwear and garments. As common sense would bear out, most people are not willing to purchase the finished leather and make their own clothing or footwear, and would prefer to purchase finished clothing or footwear at locations they normally shop. None-the-less, a small niche market exists for natural organic leather hides. People in this target group will pay between $12 and $20 per square foot of leather depending on the animal, leather type, and production process. For instance, a pig skin measuring 6 square feet would fetch approximately $75 in this niche market. If the idea of a sustainable produced pig skin would be marketable through a “green” finished clothing product (i.e. Birkenstock, Orvis, etc.) I estimate it would fetch approximately $25 from such a company buying hundreds of these skins at wholesale (but premium) rates. This type of hide tanning would also benefit farms offering hunting…where deer, elk, boar, or other animals could be naturally tanned for an appropriate fee.

The hands-on labor time necessary to produce garment quality leather from pigs, sheep, deer, goats, and similar “thinner skinned” animals requires approximately 8 hours of hand labor over a one-two week period for “oil and smoke tan” and about the same for vegetable tanning processes if a softer leather is desired. This time frame is greatly increased for thicker, larger hides such as from cattle, elk, buffalo and the like. For “smoke tan” it can involve up to 40 hours of hand labor over a two to three week period for a finished buffalo robe, and for vegetable tan about 20 hours of hand labor, but a waiting time of up to 3 months for the vegetable tanning process depending on the type of leather desired. Although I have perfected the oil and smoke tanning process, I think it will take many more hides to perfect the vegetable tanning process.

An integrated goal of a natural tannery would be to make sure it is a zero discharge and zero waste business. An aspect of even the natural tanning process is that there are quantities of “waste material” mostly membrane tissue, fat, hair, small quantities of blood, and salt from preserved hides. Combined with other “waste” materials an onsite compost facility would reduce these to a product suitable for gardens or farm fields…and might prove to be an added value product of the tannery…since it could be certified organic and sold locally. Other wastes include de-hairing solutions and tanning solutions, and cleanup waste water. The natural process re-uses these solutions as many times as feasible. However, they would need to be re-balanced for neutral pH and then filtered through a constructed wetland onsite as a final cleansing process. These steps of managing a compost facility and constructed wetland cells would help ensure a pollution free environment.

In my search to find out if an organic tannery already exists, I could locate only one existing at this time. It exclusively vegetable tans sheep skins in the UK, and is the only organically certified tannery in the European Union. Attempts to discover more about their tanning process did not get far, as they guard their process and formula as “secret”. I did learn that a small regional tannery in the U.S. is gearing up and attempting to gain USDA organic certification in Oregon. They concentrate currently on the oil and smoke and vegetable tanned products at a very limited quantity. They direct market their green-label products to the high-end fashion market….but most of the leather is sold as whole hide to the niche market of people that want to make their own clothing. The head tanner told me he believes used tanning equipment can be used in his operation to reduce labor per hide, and he is gearing up to accomplish this feat. But, because the use of toxic chemicals to de-hair hides are not used, some amount of hand labor is required for most hides. The downside to the organic rules is that “wild” caught animals such as deer and elk can’t be certified. Only animal hides from a certified organic farm can be tanned and certified as organic. I believe that this tannery continues to work toward a natural certification that will accommodate the wider spectrum of animal hides.

To this end, my research into obtaining equipment for a small regional tannery showed that there are a limited number of hide tanning machines available for purchase here in the U.S. Some are at a reasonable price, while others are quite expensive. Prices range from 1,500 for a heavily used buffer, 5,000 for a heavily used splitter machine all the way to 19,000 for a good working condition splitter and 33,000 for a decent quality vacuum dryer. Wooden tumbling drums, necessary in the process to reduce labor requirements, run approximately $6,000 - $10,000 each new depending on size, but might be found for less than half of that used. Smaller sized tumbling drums could be hand built for much less that would accommodate smaller sized skins. One barrier to obtaining the machinery is the cost of transportation to get all of it to one location. Another would be finding a competent mechanic to get the machinery in working order, and to maintain it.

Another barrier for a small regional natural tannery is the transportation costs of obtaining a regular supply of organic or sustainable raised hides here and there around the region. Agreements would need to be made with the farms and the meat processors to obtain the hides. A suitable building or series of smaller buildings would need to be erected, or rented, for a regional tannery. As mentioned above, a composting facility and constructed wetlands would need to be installed. The overall start-up costs utilizing used tanning machinery, used truck for transportation, skid loader and tractor for onsite handling and composting tasks, basic building(s) to house the operation, and enough land zoned for the business are detailed in the appendix, attached on page 9 feasibility study.

An unsuspected finding in my project is that there are significant movements at the research and pilot stages to adopt environmentally benign enzyme based processes in the tanning industry. During this SARE project, I learned of a related USDA research project conducting investigation into the use of these enzymes (Project Number: 1935-41440-014-00). Preliminary results sound promising, and if they are implemented industry-wide it would revolutionize the leather production process. These new processes also would greatly reduce or eliminate negative environmental impacts. I read published journal research based in India that is investigating similar processes (India has a large number of tanneries that supply the U.S.). If these enzymatic processes become established it would perhaps negate the need for “organic/natural” tanneries. Since an already established tannery could be contracted by a cooperative of “sustainable animal farms” to finish the leather or furs. It is my opinion that the adoption of the enzymatic processes will take place industry wide, eventually. Primarily because they will provide economic incentives, but also because of less chance of environmental regulatory fines. What is not clear to me yet is if the industry will continue to rely to some degree on the use of chromium. The other aspect is that some of these enzymes are bio-engineered. It would be wise to take a “wait and see” approach to a regional tannery to see what developments will occur in the larger industry the next few years.

In summary this project has demonstrated that organic, healthy, non-toxic processes can yield a variety of high quality leathers and furs. The other aspect of this project was to investigate the feasibility of scaling the process to a regional organic/natural tannery that would benefit sustainable animal farmers. Research and economic analysis show that such a venture could be successful if the following are achieved:
• Contracts with footwear and clothing manufacturers could be obtained (informal surveys showed that people who already purchase environmentally conscious products would pay a premium for naturally tanned leather products such as footwear, jackets, hand bags, belts, etc. from sustainably reared animals. But they would not purchase the hide leather directly).
• Securing working specialized tanning machinery and adapting it for most steps in the natural tanning process (to reduce labor requirements in order to make the tannery economically feasible)
• Securing agreements with farms, ranches, and meat processors in the region to obtain enough quality hides to meet demand.
• Keeping transportation costs in check.
• Finding reliable and knowledgeable local staff to fulfill the labor requirements.
• Locating land zoned for the business

Conducting a farm scale tannery could be financially successful if the farm is raising animals with hides that demand a premium from individual buyers. These include buffalo, deer, and elk. For instance, a naturally tanned buffalo hide (fur on) sells for approximately $1,000 (but involves up to 40 hours of hand labor to produce). This might make the high labor requirement economically feasible (at the small farm scale, it would not be economically feasible to secure the tanning machinery and other equipment that a larger regional scale tannery could rationalize.) The other barrier is that a person highly skilled in the natural tanning process would need to conduct the tanning. The farm would need to be involved in aggressively marketing the end product to farm visitors and other outlets.

Informal discussion with local interested people took place (i.e. with the local Extension Agent, and several other individuals). I used email to respond to inquiries about the natural tanning process. Visiting farmers markets and discussion about environmentally conscious products for sale, including leather. I’ve conducted two natural tanning workshops where a total of 10 people participated in learning the process. I also demonstrated the process at two local venues (Feast of Hunters Moon and Potawattami Festival) with a total of over 100,000 people in attendance. I had a great deal of interest and many questions from people. I also marketed the finished product at these venues where people could touch, feel, and understand the difference between chemical-chrome tanned leather and the natural leather. I’ve been able to raise awareness locally a great deal through these interactions, as well as visits to local elementary schools where I have talked about the process.

I have produced a video on the natural tanning process, as well as a short workbook describing step by step the process. I have created a web site ( that hosts these resources for others to learn from. This Web page is in its initial stages and will continue to undergo development with resources added along the way. The Website will remain active in the future.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.