For the last three years, we have conducted on-farm workshops during our fall shearing (our flock is shorn twice a year and produces a premium fiber in the fall). Our workshop participants choose wool from our naturally colored fleeces as it is shorn. In four days, we walk them through the processes of handling their raw wool: skirting, scouring, flicking, carding, spinning and knitting. In 2010, we offered two workshops; one in June without the shearing, and one in September when we shear our premium wool.
Partnering with Warner Mountain Weavers to develop an increased market for high quality wool and wool products, our farm held four-day workshops during our fall shearing to add value to raw wool and increase a customer base for wool and butcher lambs.
1. To develop an increasing market for high quality wool and wool products.
2. To help develop a reliable market for high quality wool and wool products produced by other local growers.
3. To cooperate with Warner Mountain Weavers to increase shared market possibilities.
4. To expand our sheep flock as our wool market becomes an increasingly important component of our farm’s diversified income.
5. To develop value-added products and agri-tourism as components of diversified income.
Wool processing equipment
We purchased the following equipment to be used as dedicated equipment for fleece harvests on our farm:
Four Ashford Traditional spinning wheels;
One Ashford Circle-of-Yarns spinning wheel;
One used Ashford Traditional spinning wheel;
Wool Hand cards;
Five Flick Cards;
Six Ashford Niddy Noddy’s;
Two Gail Petersen Navajo Spindles;
One Gail Petersen regular drop spindle;
One Ashford Joy Spinning Wheel.
In addition, our farm built (at no cost to SARE) four large, portable wool scouring sinks that use an on-demand propane water heater. Having dedicated workshop equipment to count on is very helpful.
Bonnie Chase and Melissa Harris have held two spinning workshops at Warner Mountain Weavers in 2011 using this dedicated equipment.
The additional June workshop has been dropped. Early summer scheduling does not fit well with our farm schedules at that time of year.
After working on re-structuring our workshop business plan over the winter to more accurately reflect the skills and desires of each of the three principal partners, WMW, Bonnie Chase and Melissa Harris decided to not continue to participate in our farm workshops. Because of the reduced numbers of our collaborators, we could not complete the second half of our contract.
To increase workshop participants’ interest and awareness in other fiber producers, we added visits to other fiber producers (yak and llama) to our workshop curricula this year. Based on Western SARE reviewers’ comments that we needed to offer more outreach to other fiber producers, we offered an additional spring workshop with scholarships to other fiber producers.
Our farm will continue to hold fleece harvest events and other alternative workshops in the future. We remain encouraged that agro-tourism events will continue.
In addition to the woolgathering workshops, we have also had a successful painting-photography workshop on the farm. We are planning our fifth Fall Fleece Harvest workshop for 2012, as well as potential Willow Furniture Making and Wetlands Restoration workshop.
Each workshop that we held on the farm increased the customer base for our wool. Warner Mountain Weavers is sold out of our value-added farm product, Sophie’s Icelandic Wool, in large part because of the interest in the product that has grown through these workshops. Word-of-mouth endorsement by workshop participants brings not only more future workshop participants, but visitors to the WMW and the farm during other times of year. We have also had increased interest in and sales of our butcher lambs because of the workshops, which sold out in 2011.
Our flock has increased 30% over the last three years. In addition to developing a market for our wool and butcher lambs, we are working with NRCS on improved pasture to carry the extra numbers.
We have worked closely with WMW to keep our wool supply moving along with increased sales. While Warner Mountain Weavers has decided to not participate in the farm fleece harvests as a partner, WMW has indicated interest in future wool, yarn and roving from our flock as our farm’s wool products have sold out.
The farm’s butcher lamb sales have increased as a result of the workshops, and several participants have expressed interest in starting their own small flocks of triple-purpose Icelandic sheep.
Participants in both 2010 workshops gained valuable knowledge about the problems and opportunities for small farm flocks in today’s world.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Scholarship opportunity for producers: Several of our Western SARE application reviewers commented that our outreach to other growers was not particularly strong in our proposal. We appreciated this valuable input and implemented an additional June 2010 fleece harvest and a scholarship program to benefit other fiber growers and for fiber arts instructors and merchants. Even though we implemented our scholarship program only a few weeks before the June event, we were able to contact enough fiber producers to apply. Out of these applicants, we selected four scholarship recipients for our June Woolgathering.
In addition we conducted the following outreach activities:
A trip to Oregon Flock and Fiber by Bonnie Chase and Melissa Harris was valuable in spreading recognition of our event and products in the handcrafting fiber world.
We refined and developed a schedule for each workshop to accommodate participants with varied skill levels. The curricula will change for future workshops on the farm as they will not have WMW and Harris as collaborators.
Participant satisfaction with our workshops was very high as an agri-tourism event. Although many participants were not producers, the workshops provided a forum to discuss today’s problems and opportunities in agriculture, and we are pleased with the level of non-producer interest and participation.
We demonstrated that holding workshops can lead to added income to a farm for four years, both in the sale of wool at a much higher price than we could get otherwise and from the fees paid by participants in the event. Even though our contract ended prior to completion, we remain committed to the value of agritourism events such as ours to augment small farm income.
In addition, we are in preliminary discussion with local farm and federal agencies about hosting workshops for other producers on our farm to help them identify agritourism potentials in their operations, both on their own farms and on federal lands (grazing).
Other producers have indicated interest in our workshops, not so much for the specific wool processing skills but from the idea of adding agritourism as an income-producing component to their own farms. After our first workshop, our shearer, Devon Strong of Four Eagles Farm, developed butchering workshops as agritourism events on his farm. He gets top dollar for his animals and passes a skill on to his customers.
The success of our wool workshops makes us even more committed to agritourism as a viable income-producing component to sustain our farm. Sophie has obtained California certification as a Food Manager. She is also requesting farm certification from the Modoc County Health Department that would allow us to serve food, especially our own farm-grown food, during farm stays, workshops and other farm events.
Reactions from Producers
The producers who attended our spring workshop indicate a high level of interest in adopting agri-tourism events on their own farm. Our farm is in the preliminary stages of planning possible workshops on our farm for other producers: to show them how we conducted our fleece workshops and to help other producers identify opportunities of their own. Other producers have indicated they think this is a good business idea.
After the reduction in numbers of our collaborator/partners, we realized they did not have the same stake in the workshops as we did as farm owners/operators. As a result, we are in the process of developing outreach workshops with potential collaborator organizations. We would like to host these on our farm to help other farmers and ranchers identify skills and resources that could lead into their own agritourism opportunities and share how we have organized our own successful workshops to help other producers develop their own. We have preliminary expressions of interest from the local RC&D staff, the U.S. Forest Service and several other producers. We will be working with these agencies and individuals during the winter of 2011-12 to develop program ideas.