Alternative Uses for Raw Wool: Feasibility Study/Marketing Strategy

Final Report for FW01-040

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2001: $13,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: Western
State: Oregon
Principal Investigator:
Margaret Magruder
Magruder Farms
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Project Information


The goal of this project is to identify alternative uses and markets for wool and to develop a marketing strategy to move product into the marketplace.

Using a producer survey, discussion groups and literature searches, the project team identified eight alternative uses for wool that could become viable products. From that list, three were selected for further study: storm water basin bags, erosion and weed control mats and pet beds. Two others merit future exploration: wool insulation and pelleted wool mulch.

Prototypes were developed for each product, and the primary focus of the SARE project became the pet beds - burlap covers filled with scoured wool mixed with cedar chips with a 100% cotton cover available. The wool provides temperature and moisture control and cedar aids in odor and flea control. A veterinarian has endorsed the pet bed.

The beds use between 1 and 3.5 pounds of scoured wool each, or 2 to 7 pounds of raw wool with a value of around 50 cents a pound. The wool used may be short stapled and of low quality, including tags or belly wool. Coarser rather than finer wool is preferred to reduce felting.

Market and cost analysis indicate the product has market potential. Preliminary marketing conducted at two bazaars and one farm store was reasonably successful. Minor changes are being made to the final product, which is being produced at the cottage-industry level and marketed by two producers under the Oregon Shepherd label.

The primary mission of this SARE grant was to explore alternative uses for wool as a means to expand the wool market and improve the bottom line for Oregon sheep producers. As often occurs with SARE research grants, unexpected but welcome experiences occurred along the way. In this case, the group dynamic attracted new participants, which inspired innovation.

"The participants became energized and created additional partnerships to explore other venues of the sheep industry, such as marketing lamb, lamb processing techniques and the feasibility of a lamb processing plant in Oregon," says Margaret Magruder, project coordinator.

Magruder says the project team has been able to leverage the SARE funds and to acquire other grants to continue to develop the products identified through the SARE research. Participants did learn that product development and marketing is a complex process that requires a long-term commitment, although they have adjusted their course as needed to reach their established marketing goal.

The "Future of Wool Survey" was conducted in June 2001 to provide baseline information on the wool clip of Oregon growers and to solicit input on alternative uses for wool

The survey, sent to 3,311 producers, received 400 responses. Results detailed challenges facing sheep producers in marketing their wool. Few received income above the cost of shearing and some opted to dispose of their wool by burning, burying or composting. Wool handling techniques needed improving, but until prices increased, few had an incentive to do so. The cost of shearing for small producers - 50 ewes or fewer - was 57 cents a pound. For larger herds it was 45 cents. Neither expense was recovered when commercial buyers paid 24 cents a pound, if they were buying at all. A few operators had penetrated spinning and other niche market, receiving $3.50 to $5 a pound.

The survey, bolstered by discussion and literature review, yielded this list of alternative uses for wool: storm water drain bags; storm water basin bags; erosion control barriers with and without grass seed and meadowfoam meal; weed barriers; pelleted wool mulch; pet beds; insulation; and archery bags. (The full project report includes details of product development in other regions on each of these uses.) The project team tested three promising uses: storm water drain inserts and basin bags; wool for erosion control, weed barriers and revegetation; and pet beds.

Storm water drain inserts and basin bags. This project, identified as having a high potential for success, has received attention from the Port of Portland and Water Environmental Services, both of which have agreed to help test wool-based prototypes and provide guidelines so the products will meet industry standards. Preliminary tests show that low-grade wool material works well in comparison with the current industry standard, polypropylene, in storm water remediation. Market tests, looking at the wool bags' value in trapping pollutants to protect waterways, began in October 2002 and were completed in January 2003. The project is proceeding in cooperation with Full Circle Ag with funding from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the American Wool Council.

Wool for erosion control, weed barriers and revegetation. Prototype wool-based mats for use in landscaping have been developed and undergone initial tests. Field evaluation will commence this fall and winter in real-life situations, including weed control and fertilizer assistance for Christmas tree production and reforestation projects with Oregon State University Extension in collaboration with producers and landowners. Initial experiments with wool mats outside the laboratory indicate the mats may not hold enough moisture on slopes to help with sprouting, but they do work effectively as a weed barrier. The experiments are continuing with funding from the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Pet beds. This project evolved when one of the group's dogs found that wool backed with burlap from an erosion control mat project and left on the producer's porch served as a suitable bed. The initial beds comprised recycled burlap filled with short-stapled, scoured wool, which was preferred over raw wool because of cleanliness, odor and safety. A few cedar chips were added to aid in odor and flea control. The beds were tested by group participants' dogs with 100% satisfaction. Tests at the Multnomah Kennel Club suggested that cotton covers might be more suitable. The beds, endorsed by a small animal veterinarian, are now being produced as Wooly Bags in four sizes with plain and designer covers offered in addition to burlap. The cottage industry produces about 100 beds a day, with production improvements evolving with experience. A Web site is being designed to afford distribution beyond Oregon. The project, which received funding from the Oregon Sheep Growers Association, will be continued by participating producers under the Oregon Shepherd name.

The products identified as having market potential could provide alternative wool outlets for the Oregon sheep industry. The burgeoning pet supply industry indicates high potential for expansion of the Wooly Bag pet bed, which could have a favorable impact on the domestic wool market. The product's bulkiness could reduce its potential because of shipping difficulties, but that could be overcome through regional manufacturing.

The basin bag and erosion control mats offer huge potential, especially given environmental interests in biodegradable and renewable products.

"All of these products lend themselves to rural cottage industry as they do not require high-tech equipment for production," says project coordinator Margaret Magruder.
While this project did not address specific producer practices, the expanded use of lower-grade wool offers potential to impact the way producers handle and package their wool.

"If this project provides an eventual outlet for lower-grade bellies and tags it may encourage the producer to separate the grades of wool and package them separately, providing higher value for both grades," says Magruder.

While Oregon sheep producers have shown support for the project, with several participating by testing beds and providing feedback, any measurable impacts await expanded product sales.

The project report says the complexity of creating a value-added product and moving it into the marketplace may inhibit producer participation. The grant funds and in-kind assistance have allowed the project team to overcome obstacles that might otherwise impede progress. Other lesson learned include these:

· Seed money, such as provided by the SARE grant, can help attract addition funding to expand a project and move it to its full potential
· More detailed work plans at the outset can improve efficiency
· Cooperation among commodity groups and state and local agencies is key to the success of value-added projects

Several presentations were made to the Oregon Sheep Grower Association membership and board, and information was provided in a booth at the 2001 Oregon State Fair.

Sheep Magazine published an article on the project in February 2002, and articles on alternative uses of wool were published in several editions of the Oregon Sheep Grower Association newsletter, published in cooperation with the Oregon Sheep Commission and distributed to more than 3,000 Oregon sheep producers. Information about the project also appears on the association's Web site,


Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes
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.