Black Cat Farmstead: Raising primarily wool sheep for textile use, with an ongoing research project related to flax for textile use. Typical flock size about 60, rotationally grazed on permanent pasture, with hay production on approximately 5 acres.
A to Z Produce and Bakery: organic vegetable and small grain production in Stockholm, Wisconsin for the past twenty-five years. Approximately 1/2 acre of textile flax was grown on the farm in 2017, with a similar planting planned for 2018.
Can new technology revive an ancient textile fiber? We are exploring the feasibility of developing a local linen industry; growing textile flax in an organic rotation on a small, diversified farm, then working with newly-developed mechanical processing equipment to turn flax into linen products: line flax, tow fiber and roving, linen yarns, and handmade paper. Linen is an ancient textile material, cultivated for more than 10,000 years. Cloth made from flax – linen – is an extraordinarily long-lasting and high-quality textile. Immigrants to this region brought flax-growing knowledge and the tools for working flax into linen with them when they arrived here in the 19th century, but a local linen industry never took hold; flax is time-consuming to harvest and process, and cotton became the dominant natural textile fiber in the United States. Today, cotton and all other natural fibers represent a smaller and smaller percentage of global textile production; replaced by synthetic, petroleum-based cloth. Even so, interest in “local linen” is strong among hand spinners, knitters, weavers, and papermakers in our region. Many people have come to recognize the importance of developing (or rediscovering) options for locally-grown and processed textile materials. Flax is part of a traditional organic rotation; it grows well in our region without significant inputs, and has the potential to be a local, sustainable textile crop. At this time, no regional infrastructure for processing flax straw into finished linen products exists in America. A lack of processing infrastructure has prevented fiber flax from being grown at anything but a very small experimental scale. Lack of processing machinery has been an insurmountable obstacle to overcome in beginning to explore the creation (or revival) of flax growing in our region. However, new developments in small-scale processing machinery present the potential to bring local linen production to our region.
The purpose of our project is to begin to explore the elements of a system of growers and potential end-users who would be part of the “ecosystem” of creating a local linen infrastructure in our area. We are consulting with Taproot Fibre Lab for this project. Taproot Fibre Lab is a project of Taproot Farm, an organic CSA farm outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Taproot began growing flax several years ago, and met the same challenges posed by lack of processing equipment that everyone interested in local linen production encounters. Taproot undertook an ambitious project to design and build small-mill flax processing equipment, and as of fall 2016, their innovative processing line is complete and operational. The development of Taproot’s processing machinery presents the possibility that the historic barrier to creating local linen may be surmountable. Textile flax can be incorporated within the existing planting regimes of regional small, diversified farms, and production scaled to the capacity of a cottage industry-scaled mill of the type being developed by Taproot.
In November, 2017, we transported approximately 500 pounds of retted flax straw to Taproot’s mill for processing. This load represented a bit less than half of our 2017 harvest, and was processed into 65 pounds of line flax and fine tow, with an additional 100+ pounds of fine tow left at the mill for additional processing. We will plant, grow, harvest, and process a similar crop in 2018.
Our team is growing a modest amount of flax; one half acre in 2017 and 2018. Working in collaboration with Taproot, the bulk of our crop of flax straw is being transported to their site in Nova Scotia for processing. The processed flax fiber can be used for a variety of purposes; primarily handspinning, weaving, and papermaking. The purpose of the project is twofold; to demonstrate that flax can fit into an existing organic rotation on a diversified farm, and to show that flax and linen products could be produced here for a local/regional market.
We are emphasizing robust project outreach to educate the public and potential end users about flax production, processing, and its potential for this area. Outreach is being accomplished digitally, using our websites and social media, and in-person, through presentations at regional events focused on agriculture and local fiber/textile production.
This project is intended to be a preliminary feasibility study working towards building a local linen mill in our area using Taproot’s machinery. If it appears feasible, our long-term goal is the development of a small, local linen industry here in our region.
Two, ¼-acre adjoining fields, 3a and 3b, were chosen for planting three varieties of Belgian flax; Melina, Calista, and Vesta, at a seeding rate of 60 pounds/acre. All three varieties were planted in each section. In 2016, 3a had been used for sweet corn, peanuts and summer squash. It had an over-wintered crop of crimson clover. 3b was in white clover and had been grazed in 2016. We treated the textile flax like any small grain. It was planted in the first week of May; a bit later than we would have liked because shipment of our seed was delayed.
We grew the same cultivars Taproot grew in 2017, and ordered our seed through them. We discovered that the seed, because it was shipped first to Canada, required a second round of sanitary certification. Several weeks passed while the seed was inspected and a Canadian phytosanitary certificate was issued. To avoid the potential for this issue arising in 2018, we already have our 2018 seed on hand; a Dutch cultivar called “Avian,” which we will be able to plant as soon as the ground is ready this spring.
Sourcing textile flax seed in the US is challenging. The most commonly available cultivar is “Marilyn.” We were pleased to be able to try several new cultivars, and to see how each performed during the 2017 growing season.
4/9/17 Dug fields with a field digger.
4/23/17 Second digging.
5/4/17 Third digging before planting
5/5/17 Planted 15ft swath of each variety with a 10ft grain drill. Under-seeded with white clover
6/23-30/17 Flax in FULL Bloom
7/5/17 A sea of green seed heads
7/6/17 Tried cutting flax with a swather used for small grains; it cut well, but the flax was immature at 60+ days.
7/17/17 Melina flax (the earliest-maturing of the three cultivars grown) leaves yellowing about 50 percent. We attempted to cut the flax with the swather, but it totally bogged down and it became clear we will have to hand pull to harvest the crop.
7/17/17 Start pulling with a crew of 4 for an hour just to get an idea of time. As it is harvested, the flax is laid on the ground in orderly rows and the process of dew retting begins.
7/18/17 Stan and Andrea pull Tuesday night for 3 hours and get the first 5 ft swath down.
7/23/17 Group of 10 volunteers pull for 2 hours.
7/26/17 Group of 6 students from Macalester College in St Paul pull flax for 1 hour after a large rain event, leaving large clods of mud on the flax roots.
7/27-8/4 Pulling, pulling, pulling Robbi, Stan, Andrea.
8//5/17 All flax from 3b pulled and on the ground. Flax in plot 3a was abandoned (see RESULTS and DISCUSSION for additional notes).
8/5-19/17 During the dew retting process, the flax is turned over as deemed necessary to facilitate an even breakdown of the stalks. When retting appears to be adequately advanced, the Flax is turned one last time, and bundled when it is as dry as possible.
8/20/17 Last bundles of retted flax straw tied and stored out of the weather.
We planted the flax a little later than we might have liked, but there may have been some weed control advantage in the multiple cultivations which were done while we waited for the seed to arrive. We certainly would not want to plant any later as that would push harvest into September, when the days are too short for efficient dew retting and drying. May 1st might be a good target date in our area.
Under-seeding our flax with white clover worked beautifully. This may not be surprising as that is what you would do with wheat or oats, but the clover took a lot of abuse walking on it, pulling the flax roots around it, and then laying the flax on top of it.
As the flax matured, was pulled, retted and bundled, Andrea was our main counsel. She has grown small plots for several years and directed us on the process of harvesting. Each variety of flax was pulled as it matured. It was a pretty seamless succession over 2 weeks. We would just finish up one and it would be time to start the next. We began on section 3b because it was the most weed-free across all varieties.
Judging the completion of retting is tricky. Sometimes it was really obvious and sometimes less clear. Impending weather would push us to bundle flax for fear of over-retting. By the end of August there was a small window during the middle of the day when the flax was dry from morning dew and before the afternoon dampness began. Noon to 2pm became the magic hours for bundling and storing. The flax we sent to Taproot for processing included straw that was somewhat under-retted, some that was very well-prepared for processing, and a limited amount that was over-retted. We intentionally included these retting variations in the material we sent to the mill, so that we could get a sense of how the machines handled straw of different qualities. In general, the machines encounter the same concerns a human processing flax by hand does in this situation: under-retted flax was more difficult to clean, over-retted flax generated large quantities of tow and little line, and well-retted straw yielded the best quality fiber; of maximum length, shine, fineness, and strength.
One advantage of the machines over a human flax dresser: mechanical processing equipment doesn’t tire, and can break, scutch and hackle as long as necessary to remove the boon/shive (the pithy core of the flax stalk) and comb the fiber into usable condition.
We were not able to harvest all the flax that we planted. Section 3a had multiple problems. A significant amount of the flax in this plot (mostly Vesta, the tallest and latest-maturing of our three cultivars) lodged under heavy rains before it matured to the point it could be harvested. Part of the section 3a (Melina, the earliest-maturing of our three cultivars) was pulled when the ground was too wet from a large rain event. Muddy roots dried to muddy clods which were time-consuming to bundle, and sanitary concerns demanded that the clods of dirt be removed before the straw was transported to the mill. Weed pressure from lambsquarters in late-maturing cultivar forced us to roll the crop down before the weed seed matured.
Time constraints and a lack of hands to pull flax kept us from harvesting some of the flax in 3a when it was at an ideal state of maturity. There came a moment when it just became clear that we could harvest ALL of 3b or parts of both, and we chose to gather all of 3b.
Even though Ted and Robbi do lots of hand work with vegetable crops at A to Z, they were not prepared for how much time it would take to harvest the flax by hand. We had two work days with volunteers, an hour or two at a time. The rest was pulled a couple hours here, a couple hours there until it all got out. Andrea pulled on Pizza Nights in order to engage the public. Both Andrea and Stan pulled multiple other times. Ted pulled some, but Robbi did the majority of pulling and was not prepared for how physically arduous the work is when done at the scale we planted. If flax was going to go into a long term rotation at A to Z, finding a a way to harvest mechanically (perhaps by building a puller) would become a high priority.
The section of 3a that did not get fully harvested was a useful control. One part was left to fully mature the seeds. We harvested that seed and then mowed the area. As one might imagine given the fiberous nature of the flax stalks, it is not easy to mow, leaving behind a tangle of fiber. We did graze sheep on it after it was mown, and the animals were able to disrupt it, but there was certainly material there going into winter. We’ll see in the spring what it is like to incorporate. The portion of plot 3a that we pulled and left lay on the ground served as a useful reference to understand what true over-retting looks and feels like. The lodged and mown flax was still there when winter came and it will be interesting to see what is left in the spring. We expect that nearly eight months of what amounts to a natural process of over-retting will have significantly broken down the fiber. The weedy mess of 3a that was grazed and mowed will be cover cropped in 2018. Though the whole section was under-seeded in white clover, the fact that it wasn’t harvested really kept that clover from flourishing.
Section 3b did have a small area that lodged, but overall looked good all season. The clover under-seeding did just great. As we were pulling it didn’t look like much but it really took off even as the flax was laying on the ground and we did graze it in September. As was noted in the beginning of this part of the report, 3a had been used for sweet corn, peanuts and summer squash. It had an over-wintered crop of crimson clover. 3b was in white clover and had been grazed in 2016. 3b was by far the better of our two plots in 2017, suggesting that a rotation from white clover and grazing to flax might produce a better yield than going from a vegetable crop to flax.
And lastly, perhaps 1/2 acre is too much to harvest inside a very busy time of year on a vegetable farm, unless provisions are made to recruit additional hands at harvest time, or a means of mechanical harvest is devised. We plan to plant 1/4 acre in 2018. Soil testing is not yet complete. Soil testing results will be added to next year’s report.
We harvested approximately 1,200 pounds of flax straw from the area we planted in 2017. We were able to carry 480 pounds of retted flax straw to Taproot in the back of the Black Cat Farmstead pickup truck, packed in three bulk storage totes. This retted straw yielded 65 pounds of line flax and fine tow, with an additional 100+ pounds of rough tow fiber left behind at Taproot’s mill for additional processing into clean tow, tow roving, and spun tow linen yarn.
The line flax we processed in Nova Scotia is suitable for hand spinning into linen yarn/thread for weaving or knitting. The very long staple length of these fibers (30”+ in our crop; Taproot’s engineer was quite complimentary of length and quality of our fiber) precludes their use in a mechanical spinning frame designed for shorter-stapled fibers like wool. Taproot’s spinning equipment (manufactured by Belfast Mini Mills on Prince Edward Island) is being adapted to spin line flax, but this capability is not yet available.
Tow flax fiber, the shorter, more irregular fibers generated during the processing of line flax, can be processed into roving and mechanically spun into yarn, or spun by hand, or the clean tow fiber can be used in papermaking.
The line flax and fine tow are being packaged by Andrea into bundles which can be sold to handspinners, papermakers, and other fiber/textile artists and craftspeople. Similar line flax, grown overseas, mechanically prepared, and imported to the US, is generally priced at $4/ounce. If our locally-grown, organic flax fiber is priced at $4.50/ounce, it has a value of $4,680. Our processing costs to date are $1,625 US (excluding our transport costs), but this number may not reflect an accurate accounting of the real cost of the processing. We hope to get a better sense of the cost of production and the value of the crop in the second year of the project.
We documented our trip to Taproot and the processing of the flax on our farm Facebook page. During our time in Canada, our academic partner, Mary Hark, traveled to Nova Scotia and held a papermaking workshop for thirteen participants from both the US and Canada, at Taproot, using flax fiber and other plant materials to make a variety of handmade papers.
The workshop highlighted the variety of uses for flax fiber and generated a lot of interest in the project on the part of hand papermakers across the US, who have expressed interest in purchasing domestically-sourced tow fiber as soon as it is commercially available. We are scheduling a similar workshop to take place here in Wisconsin during 2018.
Our trip to Taproot’s mill in Port Williams represented their first custom processing order. As Taproot shifts their focus from the design and prototyping of their machinery to building both the machines for sale and producing flax and linen items, they are now creating the larger organization of the machines, training staff to operate them, and hiring a manager to run the adjacent carding and spinning mill. When we arrived in Nova Scotia, the machines were freshly-installed in what will become Taproot’s primary processing facility. New walls were literally being built around us as we worked to process the straw from our 2017 crop! We look forward to seeing the results of the additional processing work we will have done in 2018.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Education and outreach activities through 2017 included:
March 2017: Presentation of a project overview to the Lake pepin Local Food Group, Stockholm, Wisconsin.
April 2017: Presentation of the project and an introduction to linen production to a tour group from the Minnesota Textile Center visiting Stockholm, WI.
May, 2017: Presentation of the project and an introduction to flax and linen processing via demonstrations at the Shepherds Harvest Festival over Mothers Day weekend.
May 2017: installation of informational signage about the project at both of our planting sites: Black Cat Farmstead Fiber Studio, and A to Z produce and Bakery, Stockholm, WI.
June 2017: Tours at Black Cat and at A to Z, with papermaker Mary Hark, during the flax blossom time, are shared on social media.
July 2017: Information about the project is shared at our booth during the Stockholm Art Fair, and in demonstrations at Nordic Fest in Decorah, Iowa. Our first field day is held in late August, with 14 participants who came to learn about the project and help with the harvest. A group of approximately 12 students from Macalester also visit during this time and help to harvest flax.
July-August 2017: Harvest takes place from late July to early August, followed by retting. I did a lot of my harvesting and other field work on Tuesday afternoons/evenings so that I could interact with people visiting A to Z for Tuesday night pizza. The project was visible to many hundreds of visitors during that time, and I spoke with dozens of people on those evenings. A few even wanted to jump in and try harvesting some flax themselves.
October 2017: The project is presented at our local public high school by our daughter. Our preparations for the trip to Canada are documented on Social Media. We present the project during the Fall Art Tour and the North Star Farm Tour, two regional events which drew approximately 500 people to our farm over 2 weekends.
November 2017: The processing trip to Taproot is documented on Social Media. Mary Hark joins us in Nova Scotia for a papermaking workshop at Taproot with thirteen attendees from Canada and the US.
December 2017: An open house at the Back Cat Fiber studio draws 40 people from the Minnesota Weavers Guild to learn more about the project, and generates a contact list of 40+ people interested in staying informed about the project and assisting in 2018.
January 2018: Presentation about Flax to an audience of 78 people at Livsreise, the Norwegian Heritage Center in Stoughton, WI.
2018 activities scheduled:
February 2018: presentation of the project as part of the annual fiber celebration at the Chippewa Valley Museum, Eau Claire, WI, and a one-day workshop at our local school via our community education program.
April 2018: Presentation of the project to multiple groups at UW-Madison, with Mary Hark.
May 2018: the project will be presented at the 21st annual Shepherds Harvest Festival
July 2018: the project will be presented at the Stockholm Art Fair and at Nordic Fest in Decorah, IA.
August 2018: Andrea will be teaching a flax class at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah IA, which will include a presentation of the SARE project.
September 2018: The project will be presented at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Days festival in Pepin, Wisconsin.
October 2018: The project will be presented at the regional Fall Art Tour and the North Star Farm Tour.
November 2018: The project will be presented at The Fall Fiber Festival in Hopkins, Minnesota.
In 2018 we will document the project at each of our sites in a similar manner to 2017, with field signage, information on our websites and social media, and one-on-one interactions with visitors to our sites. Additional outreach and education activities are being scheduled for 2018. These listings represent formal presentations of the project already completed or scheduled. Many hundreds of informal interactions and conversations about the SARE grant have taken place to date. Our posts about the project on the Black Cat Farmstead Facebook page routinely engage 500+ people.
At the halfway mark in the project, we are taking stock of what we’ve learned. We successfully grew and harvested a beautiful crop of textile flax. The depth of experience Ted and Robbi bring to the project was key to the success of our harvest in 2017. The amount of handwork the flax required was significantly more than expected because we were not able to mechanically harvest our crop, and had to rely instead on hand labor to manually pull the flax, as people have done for millennia. In 2018, we plan to be more proactive about recruiting community assistance to bring the crop in when it is ready to harvest. Taproot’s machinery is beginning to overcome the technological hurdles which have held back small-scale flax production, but in many ways, the work we did in Canada simply opens the door to new questions and challenges in all aspects of production of local textile fibers.
The machinery at Taproot, while amazing, is still in its infancy. The ripple, break, scutch, and hackle which comprise their line yield a beautiful line flax suitable for hand spinning. Taproot is in the process of installing additional milling equipment which will permit additional processing of the flax fiber (primarily the tow at this point in time) into clean tow (for spinning or papermaking), roving (for machine or hand spinning), and tow linen yarns. We left more than a hundred pounds of flax tow fiber at their mill in Port Williams for additional processing this winter/spring.
Taproot’s machinery is beginning to solve the challenges of small-scale mechanical processing of flax fiber for textile use. This is a very welcome development, but opens the door to new sets of questions: Is there a way to mechanize the harvest of textile flax at the small scale we are exploring? Or, is there a model by which hand harvesting can be effectively accomplished?
Given the rapidly changing political climate regarding another textile fiber suitable for growing in our region, we strongly recommend that additional study take place using Taproot’s processing machinery for another bast fiber: Hemp. During our trip to Nova Scotia, we learned that Taproot’s processing machinery has been successfully tested on hemp fiber for textile use. Now that Wisconsin and other states have begun permitting the growing of industrial hemp for textile and other uses, Taproot’s equipment could be very helpful to researchers working with hemp.