Developing Profitable and Sustainable Fiber Markets in Southern Minnesota

Final Report for FNC14-965

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $19,800.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Jean Mueller
State of Minnesota
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Project Information


Phone: 507.254.1737
Project Duration: March 5, 2014-December 31, 2015
Date of Report: December 30, 2015


Goal 1) Conduct a feasibility study of markets for products from fiber animals by determining:

  1. number of fiber animals,
  2. surveying producers to understand how their animals are being used, markets, marketing, economics and their interest in expanding,
  3. exploring how the industry is doing nationally and what innovative efforts are finding success,
  4. identifying and interviewing fiber users as to the opportunities and barriers to integrating local fiber into their supply chain

Goal 2)

  1. develop and implement a fiber farmer learning network,
  2. hold 4 meetings to share how producers are working with their animals, managing their land, processing and marketing their products.

Goal 3)
a. conduct a two day Sheep and Fiber Farm Tour to raise awareness and support for the
industry. Participants will be able to see the fiber animals, learn how they are raised
and cared for and what is involved in fiber farming. Information will be provided on the
benefits of natural fibers along with demonstrations on its different uses. The event
will also focus on the environmental benefits of fiber animals for improving soil and
managing invasive species. Implementing this event will include:
1. planning the event,
2. engaging at least 5 sites to be part of the tour,
3. marketing the event throughout the region and
4. evaluating the success of the event.


In the process of developing profitable and sustainable fiber markets in the niche and commerical markets areas we began with the fiber producers and the fiber. The logic behind these two components would be that these two components will determine if there are any options and if there is interest in expansion of markets opportunities. Without each of these two components there isn’t any existence of the niche and commerical markets for sustainable fiber. We needed to have the producers interested and interested in expansion of markets vs. our own individual interest in this area. Hence, we started with them and their fiber.

Starting with that premise we began to gather data on the two components; the natural fibers and the producers of these natural fibers. We wanted to know more about the where, what and why to enable us to proceed; the supply of the supply chain and the producers who supplied the supply. We applied and received a grant from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to conduct a survey of the fiber producers. We developed a job description and interviewed and hired the candidate from the University’s jobs program. The University paid a graduate student for one semester of research. We searched for all the fiber animal groups, breeder associations, farm groups, groups associated to animal agriculture and the list of individuals attending the tour as well as the social media. We received surveys from 75 producers. The survey results for Goal 1) a -d are in the summary below.

This survey indicated there was an interest of the producers in the expansion of markets. 58% of the producers indicated they would expand if more markets were available. This enabled us to proceed with development of profitable and sustainable fiber markets in the niche and commercial arenas. The producers would need to indicate the expansion was of interest to them in order for any type of development to be feasible. We were aware we did not reach all the fiber producers within the state of Minnesota. The use of the USDA census was also available for fiber animal and wool totals.

The survey’s summary was published on social media and with other fiber-related groups. It continues to be used by fiber groups as they look at development of fiber-related industries, services and associations.

THANK YOU for participating in the NATURAL FIBER ALLIANCE survey! SURVEY RESULTS (58 of 75 respondents completed the questionnaire)

I. Acres:
a. 40% less than 10?
b. 31% more than 50?
c. 29% less than 50, more than 10

2 . Raise the fiber animal for:
a. 89% fiber
b. 55% meat
c. 33% other
d. 13% dairy

3. Type of fiber animals:
a. 72% sheep
b. 24% alpaca
c. 18% rabbit
d. 16% goat
e. 16% llama
f. 6% yak
g. 6% other

4. Number of others outside of family who engage in the fiber production:
a. 72% 1-2
b. 24% 3-5

5. Feel potential markets for fiber are:
a. 85% local?
b. 33% co-op?
c. 30% wool pool, National
d. 15% shearer

6. Intend the fiber farm to eventually provide full time income:
a. 63%no
b. 37% yes

7. What is done with the fiber:
a. 79% sell to niche markets
b. 72% personal use?
c. 23% store it?
d. 23% other
e. 9% sell to shearer?
f. 6% sell to wool markets
g. 2% sell to manufacturers

8. Would you keep the fiber if more value added markets were available:
?a. 83% yes
b. 17% no

9. Top reason for being uncertain about their fiber outlook:
a. 46% other (production costs, processing, health, markets, time and skill, marketing,  shearing)?
b. 41% uncertain cost?s.
c. 8% quality
d. 3% weather and disease

10. Current markets & marketing methods used:
74% word of mouth?
b. 50% wool festivals
c. 47% website?
d. 45% social media
e. 32% stores / other festivals
f. local markets

11. Barriers to growth:
a. local markets
b. time
c. limited acres
d. cash on hand
e. identifying and reaching markets
f. age
g. lack of help?
h. cost of land and animals
i. having a mentor?
j. zoning ordinances?
k. barn size?
l. production costs?
m. marketing?
n. knowledge and experience
o. cost vs. profit?
p. a market?
q. available organic feed
r. competition and limited growth?
s. transition from outside job to farming and support family

12. Three top users of fiber
a. 60% fiber artists?
b. 20% niche markets?
c. 13% other (self, knitters / spinners, yarn stores)
d. 8% wool mills

13. Type of support needed (other than $)
a. 33% start up or value added grant?
b. 30% professional help?
c. 21% other (all of above, visibility / education regarding value of what we do, cooperative, finding markets, more buyers, market)
d. 15% training

14. Particular training:
a. marketing
b. budgeting and mentorship?
c. pasture improvement / management?
d. carder to work better?
e. breeding and husbandry
f. how to sell?
g. improve herd for sales and quality?
h. to register?
i. fiber production, processing and selling?
j. where to invest the fiber
k. shearing
l. business and marketing
m. coating the sheep / when to jacket
n. felting?
o. processing?
p. evaluate fleeces?
q. website, blog, financial sheet, track sales, etsy
r. improve wool quality
s. fodder production, handling wool after shearing?
t. lambing, vet care on farm, making value added fleece products

15. Annual production / lbs:
a. wool 5,410 lbs
b. alpaca 455 lbs
c. yak 40 lbs
d. rabbit 10 lbs?

16. Expand if more markets available:
a. 58%yes?
b. 29% depends (not wanting to be big, need to be profitable, if there was a return

17. Who processes the fiber:
a. 76% mills
b. 53% self

18. Reasons for being optimistic:
a. more individuals interested in local fibers
b. excited about local fiber production
c. lots of acreage
d. love it
e. lots of people interested in locally produced / unique products and combine
farm visits with studios and with acquisition of a product
f. positive feedback from others
g. rare wool and sought after and sheep remained fiber sheep, acreage, time, feed prices, type of market and type of return) 
h. wool is great and fiber products the best
i. fiber and fiber art has been very well received
j. can sell all the down produced?
k. genetic improvement of fleece
l. working with natural fibers
m. sales increase each year?
n. very profitable if markets?
o. great learning experience for kids?
p. valued growth of textile industry?
q. future of alpaca fiber?
r. sell most of the yarn made? s. always looking for new ideas?
t. wool spinners?
u. a product not available anywhere else
v. people beginning to appreciate local
w. local support and fiber networking?
x. raw fleece sells easy online?
y. sheep easy to manage

19. Willing to receive updates from organization:
a. 91%yes
b. 9% no

There were great comments. Too many to list individually. We hope to share with you at a network meeting!

Develop and implement a fiber farmer network was a goal to assist the fiber farmers in identifying the current markets, identify possibilities and the barriers and challenges to fiber farming.

We utilized the survey above to identify the topics to present at the network meetings as the farmers themselves expessed their needs and interests for additional information and/or training. The 4 network and/or field days were held during the two year period with two one year and two the following year. The format was either a one-day or two-day event. Speakers were determined based on the topic of the event. The event location was central to the farmers who participated in the survey. The marketing of the events were the mailing list from the past and current tour atttendees, fiber groups, farming groups, government and non-profit list servs, web site and social media. The attendance was good with positive feedback. The events are listed below.

The network and/or field days established The Natural Fiber Alliance organization to be the umbrella organization of the Sheep & Fiber Farm Tour, and to recruit members with the goal of assisting farmers in selling more fiber.
The web site was established:
A Facebook page was established at

The Natural Fiber Alliance currently has 25 paid members.

The executive summary, vision and mission statements were developed per below.The web site utilizes the format of organizing people with abilities to increase membership and inform the public and members of events and information regarding the natural fibers.

The Alliance  will continue exploring, implementing and sharing business opportunities that exist across the entire supply chain between fiber producer and all end-users.
Supply chain customers will be segmented in order to clearly define specific needs and requirement of each customer.

The Natural Fiber Alliance will be a leader in quality improvement practices that enchance the reputation of the organization as the supplier of choice among diverse buying groups 

Our objectives are to develop and implement projects to enable fiber farmers to sell more of their fibers. These projects may be with the value adding processors, companies, customers and end users.

The objectives are to assist the member in providing the best fiber to the customers to become the distinctive fiber producers to ensure supplier of choice.

The selling of fiber and educating the public about the values of sustainable fibers will continue to be the objective of the Farm Tour programs.

The Alliance will continue with market and applications research including a process of analyzing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. 

The Alliance will continue to work with universities and research institutions to learn and share knowledge about emerging technologies.

The uniqueness of the Natural Fiber Alliance members fiber is the quality improvement practices applied and requirements to ensure the fiber farmer knows and can conform to all standards and specifications of these defined needs of the supply chain customers. 

NFA members understand that effective implementation of the objectives will capture the spirit of the Natural Fiber Alliance. It will be good for everyone concerned and in many ways,
improve the quality of life of all participants.

Natural Fiber Alliance
The Natural Fibers Alliance (NFA) is an alliance of independently-owned and managed farms dedicated to producing exceptional fibers for use in a broad range of commercial, fashion, household, leisure and industrial applications. NFA is committed to be the preferred choice of regional and national users of natural fibers of every type. In that regard, NFA will identify and define the unique characteristics of fibers produced in Southeast Minnesota.

NFA will identify, and share among its members, best management practices that improve the individual operations of member farms. It is recognized that members represent virtually every segment of the natural fiber industry with farms populated with sheep, llama, yak, goats, alpaca, angora rabbits and other. Individual members will provide leadership in evaluating and communicating best practices in his/her area of specialization and expertise. This will be especially true with topics dealing with animal procurement, farm layout, shelter, animal nutrition, environmental management, marketing and other topics . In every way possible, operational effectiveness and innovation will be emphasized.

NFA will explore and share business opportunities that exist across the entire supply chain between fiber producer and all end-users. User markets will be segmented in order to clearly define the specific needs and requirements of each segment. Members will be informed of those requirements to ensure the fiber producer can/ will conform to all standards and specifications. Methods of improving competitiveness will be shared with the individual members. Market and applications research will be conducted by knowledgeable volunteers. Benchmarking will begin with regional assessments and then expand to include national and global? assessments. This will involve consideration of integrating value-adding steps in processing fibers into more acceptable and useful forms for use by manufacturers of finished products. A process of analyzing Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats will likely be used by the researchers.

NFA will be a leader in quality improvement practices that enhance the reputation of the organization as the supplier of choice among diverse buying groups.

NFA will research, share and execute best practices in educating the general public about the intrinsic values of sustainable fibers when used broadly in society. A focus on audiences in K-12 institutions will be a priority, as will the continuation and further development of "Farm Tour" programs. NFA will speak with "one voice" to develop an enduring message about natural fiber farming and fiber use. In this regard, the organization will continually listen to the "voice of the customers" of sustainable fibers to ensure that NFA is knowledgeable of current and as importantly, future needs. Promotional material that is developed to support the Alliance will have member input and approval.

NFA will work with universities and other research institutions to learn and share knowledge about emerging technologies that are relevant to fiber farming.

NFA will represent all members among the State legislature and Departments of DEED, Agriculture and Commerce.

NFA members understand that effective implementation of a plan that captures the spirit of this vision and this mission will be good for everyone concerned and in many ways, improve the quality of life of all participants.

NFA will rely principally on member participation and volunteers from supply chain partners who see the benefits of this enterprise. From time to time, we will seek grants from public and private sources to aid in specialized research and best practices evaluation. Execution of quality improvement efforts and best practices will be left up to the individual farm members.
NFA will consider Associate Members as part of the organization.

OUR GOAL is to help fiber farmers SELL MORE LOCAL,  SUSTAINABLE, NATURAL FIBERS by expanding markets to enable the consumers to buy local fiber. To help fiber farming be and continue to be as sustainable financially as it is environmentally!

THANK YOU TO OUR CURRENT MEMBERS for supporting our work!
• Expanded the 2015 Sheep & Fiber Farm Tour to include 12 farms including the Faribault Woolen Mill! Farms/Tour info on web site!
• Obtained the venue from California: Outstanding In the Field to provide our 5th Anniversary dinner to show the local food aspect of the fiber animals. Link to the August 2nd dinner tickets on our web site!
• Funding for International Felt artist Janice Arnold for her only workshop and her lecture on felt with natural fibers during the 2014 Tour!
• Obtained the venue from Minnesota:Dinner on the Farm for dinner on October 11th during the October Tour! Link to tickets on our web site Featuring local foods and another aspect of fiber farming.
• Funding from North Central Region - Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (NCR-SARE)/USDA to expand markets for fiber!
• Funding for research from UM -from Mary Page fund of the Regional Sustainable Development Partnership/UM/CURA/CAP for research of current fiber farmers and the expansion of niche and commercial markets!
• First annual Raw Fleece Sale in April 2015!
• Network and Field Days for farmers and all others in 2014 & 2015! Educating new and current fiber farmers on value adding to their fleece!

For Information on Membership, Sheep & Fiber Farm Tour, our Vision & Mission and Other, visit on our web site!

Questions at:[email protected]

1st Network Day - July 11, 2014
I. Vince: Alliance: Critical Items- (Order of items may change)
1. Discussion of Vision post survey
2. Prioritize mission objectives -critical member input
3. Discussion of member expectations expressed in the mission
4.Type of Organization preferred, i.e. member organization, 502.c.3, informal. If member, what level of fees are acceptable? Grants?
5. Discussion/plan for “deliverables” How and with what human resources?
6. Management/administration…volunteer board, “managing member”, volunteers 
7. Frank discussion of inevitable member competition for customers in the same region.
8. Strategic implementation plan-what does it look like? Who will participate?

II. Jean: Current Big Picture
1. Tour/Janice Arnolds addition
a. Committees-Please review Committee job descriptions sent earlier-
2 . Marketing
a. all media and social networks relating to the Tour & Janice
b. brochures, posters, postcards,etc
c. other
2. Signage
3. Demonstrations
4. Evaluation
5. Farm/farmers & Mill needs during Tour weekend
a. volunteers
b. demo times, etc
6. Other

2. Alliance
a. Expanding fiber markets
1. committees
a. grant writing
b. network meetings
1. Topics in the areas requested from the Fiber Farmers
a. Setting up the meetings, presenters, etc
c. marketing
1.  events:
a. Tour 2015
1.  Dinner on the Farm
2.  Other
b. Fiber Farm Market?
c. Local Fibers in Food Coops
2.  The Story/Local/the Fiber Farmers/Sustainable/Natural Fibers
a. Marketing this 

2nd Network/Field Day September 13, 2014

7210 County Road 110 West Minnetrista, MN 
web site:

$20-mail check Natural Fiber Alliance
                         Jean Mueller
                         32741 Cty. Rd. 17
                         Houston, MN 55943
or pay at
10:00 - 10:30:  Jean Mueller — Update / recap of the last few months, including report on survey results
10:30 - 11:30:  Bob Padula presentation
11:30 - 12:30:  Lunch break, during which producers will present brief intro of farms to be toured later in the day (Margaret Long, Alpacas; Judy Lewman, Border Leicesters)
12:30 - 1:30:  Tim Reese and / or Shari Polzin — brief tour of Gale Woods / meet the flock (Finnsheep and crossbreds) and hear about their fiber program
1:30 — 1:45:  —  Wrap up
1:45 — Leave Gale Woods for Lewman’s farm (3 miles N); then to Long’s near Lester Prairie (20 miles W)
Bob Padula - Wool Quality Improvement Consultant
Getting More Return for Your Wool
Through Value-added Ventures

Judy Lewan - Spring Creek Farm
40 years of raising exclusively white Border Leichesters with their long, curly, lustrous wool.

Sue Simonton & Margaret Long - Little Gidding Farm Suris
14 yrs of careful breeding to increase both quality and quantity suri fleece.

3rd Network/Field Day April 17 & 18, 2015

Friday, April 17th Goodhue Cty Fairgrouds Zumbrota,Mn
9-2:30 Registration, Agenda & Info: 

• Panel Discussion: What are Buyers Looking For        
• Management Tips: The need to take care of the fleece while ON THE ANIMAL
• Animal Care: proper feeds, pasture management, feeding methods, coats vs poor feeding habits, shearing time & platforms 
• Skirting fleeces before presenting to wool buyer=higher price! HANDS ON SKIRTING with the wool/alpaca experts! 

          Saturday, April 18th
          Goodhue County Fairgrounds Zumbrota,MN. 9-2:30pm 
          Register to sell at: 
                                 SEE YOU THERE!

4th Network/Field Day December 5th, 2015

Natural Fiber Alliance

SATURDAY~ December 5th ~Chaska, MN
Workshop's  Agenda & Registration:

3) Sheep & Fiber Farm Tours

2014 tour included the Faribault Woolen Mill and Janice Arnold an International Felting Artist who provided a workshop and lecture funded by an arts grant. The addition of Ms. Arnold with national recognition for her use of wool in her felt exhibits would help promote the tour and the use of wool by a high calibur artist. It was also intended to expand the tour into another group of potential interested individuals of the fiber art world.

The tour in 2015 was expanded to 12 stops with 11 farms and the Faribault Woolen Mill. We also added two dinners to celebrate our fifth year as a tour and to promote the fiber animals. We felt the farmer had another means of income with the fiber animal which includes meat for those who choose to. We also wanted to expand into the market of individuals who were local foodies and of the Minneapolis area which has grown into a foodie designation in promoting the natural fiber and the fiber farmers and farms. The dinners were done by outside businesses who agreed to assist us in our efforts to sell fiber. They were: and

Each year we have seen an increase in attendees at an average of approximately 150 per day with surveys of attendees indicating a positive experience. The farmers' sales of fiber, meat products and breeding stock meet with satifying results. We had a few less numbers at two of the farms that had been on the tour for the last three years. We will analyse the lower numbers for those farms while the over all numbers were higher. The newest farms seem to obtain the highest number of attendees and the farm with the dinners had the 175 attendees in August and October for the meal with October being during the tour and the additional tour attendees who were not there for the meal.

The farms have contacted us to be on the tour. If there is a farm by itself we will try to recruit farms so there is a minimum of three farms close to each other. Attendees have driven to all five stops or have chosen to do three farms that are close to each other. The marketing for the October tour begins in March with contacts made to the regional magazines. In May we have a booth at the Minnesota Wool Fest, Shepherd’s Harvest. A flyer with the date and locations of the farms along with our web site is distributed. Social media will have “mark your calendar” and introductions of the farms on the tour throughout the summer months. The brochure is completed by the middle of August and sent electronically to all fiber-related business, groups and associations in the upper midwest. It is also done for all sustainable farming groups and fiber animals breed associations. Other associations are sent the brochure electronically as well. The electronic brochure is sent out by the first of September in order for the business and groups to send out the information in their September newlsetters to their customers and members. The web site has the brochure available to download. Printed brochures are distributed by the farms in their local communities. The news media throughout the state is contacted and a pre-story is done featuring one of the farms and information on the tour by the regional papers. The social media sites are posted weekly with tour information.

The dinner in August sold out of their tickets at $200.00 per ticket with 175 in attendance. The dinner in October sold out 8 weeks prior to the October tour at $65.00 per ticket and 165 in attendance.



We are expanding with the farms on the tour for the expansion of 12 in 2015 and requests from other farms in the Southwest and Northwest areas of Minnesota to establish a Sheep & Fiber Farm Tour for 2016. This expansion of the niche markets will be beneficial for the fiber farmers throughout Minnesota.

The expansion of commercial markets is a large project starting with the survey completed in 2014. Another survey funded by the University of Minnesota to explore the interest of manufacturers in using Minnesota/Upper Midwest wool in a wool product the manufacuturer makes or development of a product for commerical usage. This survey and analysis will be completed in the Spring of 2016.

We learned from this grant that there is an interest in local sustainable natural fiber by the general public, fiber activists and the fiber farmers. This interest has propelled the tour into consistent attendance and increased attendance. It also supports previous research indicating there is a consumer-driven market for local natural sustainable fiber. With this consumer-driven market there are more possibilities of farmers being able to sell more fiber at a higher premium. This would help keep the sheep numbers more stable if fiber farmers can cover their expenses.

Project Objectives:

Goal 1) Conduct a feasibility study of markets for products from fiber animals. This will include, a) determining the current number of sheep & other fiber animals in southeast Minnesota; b) surveying fiber animal owners to understand how their animals are being used, markets, marketing, economics of their enterprises, and their interest in expanding their business and collaborating with others; c) exploring how the natural fiber industry is doing nationally and what innovative efforts are finding success. (Eg. California has established a Fibershed and is part of the Slow Cloth movement.); d) identifying and interviewing fiber users as to the opportunities and barriers to integrating local fiber into their supply chain (e.g. Faribault Woolen Mills).


Goal 2) Develop and implement a fiber farmer learning network. This will include: a) using local networks and media to identify and develop a list of fiber animal farmers or those interested in this type of farming; b) hold four meetings to share how members are working with their animals, managing their land, processing and marketing their products. Experts from NRCS, Extension, or other organizations will be invited to share resources and programs; c) hold two farmer-led field days to see first hand how farmers are managing their animals and their land.

3) Conduct a two-day Sheep and Fiber Farm Tour to raise awareness and support for this industry. Participants will be able to see the fiber animals, learn how they are rasied and cared for, and what is involved in fiber farming. Information will be provided on the benefits of natural fibers along with demonstrations on its different uses. The event will also focus on the environmental benefits of fiber animals for improving soil and managing invasive species. Implementing this event will include: a) planning the event; b) engaging at least 5 sites to be part of the tour; c) marketing the event throughout the region; d) conducting the event; and e) evaluating the success of the event.


May 2014
Meet with team and additional guests to review project plans.
Work with Minnesota Department of Agriculture to identify number of sheep and fiber animals and farms raising these types of animals in southeast Minnesota.
Conduct outreach to identify farmers and aspiring farmers in southeast Minnesota who want to be part of the fiber farmer learning network.
Determine which farm will host the field day.

June 2014
Hold the first farmer learning network meeting.
Make plans for the field day, including developing outreach materials, identifying any guest speakers (e.g. NRCS grazing specialist...), and logistics for the day.
Begin promoting the field day.
Start planning for the October Sheep and Fiber Farm Tour, including identifying sites that will be on the tour.

July 2014
Promote field day.
Host field day.
Develop outreach and promotional materials for October Tour. Begin promoting October Tour.

August 2014
Hold farmer learning network meeting. Continue to promote October tour. Begin to develop survey.

September 2014
Assist sites for October tour with preparing to host the public. Implement plan to reach media regarding October tour.
Begin research on national fiber industry and efforts in other places.

October 2014
Hold Sheep and Fiber Farm Tour. Complete survey set up.

November 2014
Implement survey.
Hold learning network meeting.
Continue to conduct research on fiber industry.

January – February 2015 Analyze survey. Interview fiber buyers.

March 2015
Complete report on fiber and fiber animal sector and possibilities in the region. Hold learning network meeting.
Plan second field day.

May 2015
Hold second field day.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Rachel Boucher
  • Melodee Smith


Participation Summary

Information Products

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.