We operate relatively small organic farms in northeastern North Dakota. We grow a variety of small grains and forages. Terry and Janet Jacobson raise beef cattle and sheep. Dennis and Diane Schill raise sheep and free range chickens. We cooperatively direct market meats as well as cleaned grains. Diane and Janet operate the wool processing enterprise under the name “Aurora Wool.” Other participants operate small diversified farms and raise sheep within Cavalier County. The Jacobsons have operated a certified organic farm since 1980.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Inherent in the concept of sustainable agriculture is diversity. Sheep provide a valuable diversity of animal life on a sustainable farm. sheep provide a use for clean out from organic grains, use of marginal grazing areas, and weed control as well as providing income from sales of lambs. Since the discontinuation of the USDA Wool Program, the value of the wool form those sheep has fallen drastically. The type of sheep which thrive on lower inputs and less intensive management in northeastern North Dakota also produce wool which is traditionally not valued by the textile industry because of the somewhat coarser fiber and color. In addition to the wool quality issue exists the problem of marketing wool from small flocks and the problem of distance from wool buyers.
We purchased a felting machine and a motorized picker from a manufacturer of cottage industry sized textile equipment in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Felting is accomplished by subjecting wool to heat, pressure, agitation, and moisture. The felting machine accomplishes this in fifteen to thirty minutes. Initially, the felting machine did not perform to our expectations and a significant amount of time was spent trying to get it repaired. After repairs were made and the wool produced was felted evenly, we began designing prototype products and marketed through craft shows and fiver arts events. As we began using the felt for vests, hats and mittens, we developed a fulling process which further hardens and stabilizes the felt. We designed patterns specific for use with felt and manufactured more finished products. We attempted to sell sheets of felt in a couple of fabric/craft shops with very limited success. The possibility of selling kits which contain felt and patterns will be investigated in the future.
In addition to manufacturing felt, we investigated various kinds of wools for use in comforters. We found that some wools would not felt in our felting machine, i.e. lamb’s wool and very springy wool from common meat breeds. We found these wools to be ideal for use in quilt batts and comforters since they did not compress easily, but when washed and carded, stayed lofty and soft and well suited for bedding. Additionally we purchased a quilting frame in order to make comforters more efficiently.
We experimented with blends of wools and mohair, angora rabbit and wool blends.
We have developed business cards, price lists, and brochures for use in marketing and are in the process of photographing our products and developing a web site. The development of the web site has taken longer than expected due to the lack of expertise of the major participants and time constraints.
We spent much of the duration of the grant in developing our processing and product. Our philosophy has been to be able to produce a product of consistent quality in a timely fashion. Our goal in marketing is to produce a high end product with a hand made appeal rather than large quantities of low cost items.
We are currently marketing our finished products at fiber fairs, handcraft markets and in a small regional art gallery. The best sales have been from September through December. We have become members of North Dakota Department of Agriculture’s Pride of Dakota system, and are hoping to have our web site completed in January of 2002. We plan to market our custom processing services through fiber arts magazines as well as sheep industry publications. Our finished products and our web site will be advertised in publications such as the Smithsonian, Atlantic Monthly, etc. that have a high income readership with a preference for natural fibers and other “green” products. Further development of sales through galleries and gift shops will be pursued. We will investigate the feasibility of producing “organic” comforters by having the wool certified as organic and using organic cotton fabrics.
Other producers involved in this project included Dennis and Diane Schill who are partners in Aurora Wool, Paul Mahin, Dennis Karsky, and Lance Muhs who provided wool and mohair. Lanny Faleide provided advice and help in developing a web site.
Kent Alderin, Extension Agent, presented a shearing demonstration and talk on sustainable grazing systems at our fall open house in October 2000.
The results of this project are difficult to measure since many of the benefits are long term and will be realized in the future. Current prices for raw wool in the conventional markets continue to be depressed and will probably not improve in the near future. A large number of domestic woolen mills have gone out of business in the last two years. Owners of small flocks, especially those whose sheep produce medium to coarse wool with black fibers currently cannot sell their wool for enough to justify hauling it to the buyer. Many producers are simply dumping the wool, rather than selling it. At the same time there is an increased consumer interest in things that are handmade and made of natural fibers.
Aurora Wool has increased its use of raw wool from under 100 lbs/year in 1999 to over 500 lbs in 2001. In addition income from customer processing increased from $500 in 1999 to $1400 in 2001. Sales increased from $2000 in 1999 to over $7500 in 2001. Customer feedback has been very positive.
One barrier to this project has been the lack of expertise in producing essentially a handmade fabric. In addition, sales tend to be seasonal as no one really is interested in buying wool products if the temperature is over 60 degrees. There is also a common prejudice against wool as people who have never experienced anything but low quality wool products think it is scratchy or that they are allergic to it. There is also a misconception that wool is difficult to care for and cannot be washed. When we have done demonstrations or sold at craft/art shows, we are often told about how someone still has their great-grandmother’s wool quilt and then are asked by the same customer if wool batts “hold up.” We attempt to increase consumer knowledge about wool and its durability and benefits in our conversations with customers, our printed materials and our web site.
We have done demonstrations for or given talks to the Carrington Research Center’s sheep school, local extension programs, an artist in residence program in a local school, a Rendezvous festival at a nearby state park, a local art festival, workshops at the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s annual meeting as well as held our own fall open house. We have been featured in news articles in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the Grand Forks Herald, the Fargo Forum, the Bismarck Tribune, the Cavalier County Republican and other newspapers and the Sheep magazine.