Regional small flock fiber producers throughout the northeast face a myriad of challenges in getting their fiber to market, from lack of access to shearers to a lack of understanding of supply chain. The goal of this project is to establish a set of guidelines to help fiber-producing communities work together to identify and address shared challenges. This work was performed through the LocalFiber community of the Finger Lakes and CNY.
The process used for the grant project was designed using project management protocols and involved brainstorming sessions, secondary research, and 2 questionnaires where respondents were asked to rank identified challenges and later solutions. After the initial iteration members were asked how successful the process was in identifying and choosing a community-based initiative. On a scale from 1-7, with 7 being “I very much agree”, the average answer was 6 (28 respondents).
The goal of this project was to devise a set of guidelines that communities could use to accurately identify and address shared challenges. While there were a number of hurdles, identified in results and discussion, the project was considered a success. The primary measure of success is that the farmers and other stakeholders who came together to fulfill this project have continued work at identifying and addressing shared challenges. The number of farmers who are taking part in this practice has also grown over the course of the grant period, another indicator that the work being done is seen as valuable by the community. The list farmers and other stakeholders interested in the work LocalFiber does in the CNY and Finger Lakes fiber communities has grown from 28 in January of 2018, at the beginning of the project, to 120 as of February 2020.
This project has 4 objectives:
1.Research current fiber infrastructure shortcomings and strengths, by defining:
a.Current infrastructure organization: successes, failures, and what lead to its current state. b.Infrastructure needs in order for regional fiber farms to be sustainable.
2.Collaborate and initiate community with a group of Finger Lakes fiber farmers to:
a.Determine how to address and find solutions for existing infrastructure shortcomings.
b.Produce a replicable strategy that will aid other communities in addressing sheep-to-shawl infrastructure issues, using project management techniques.
3.Solve (with farmer collaborators) 2 – 3 high-need/high-feasibility challenges highlighted during the collaboration phase.
4.Disseminate information on effective strategies so that other fiber communities can begin to communally address infrastructure issues, and ask for feedback.
To be deemed successful, Finger Lakes fiber farmers will note the existence of a more coherent community as well as an added ability to communally pinpoint and solve regional sheep-to-shawl infrastructure problems. They will also note an increase in their future prospects regarding quality of life, productivity, and return. These impacts will be measured by a survey that will be disseminated at the beginning and end of the grant year.
There are over 801 fiber farms in NYS . In a random survey of 57 of these fiber farms, 63% reported an annual farm income of less than $10,000/year and only 2% an annual farm income of more than $75,000/year . Results from a mill feasibility survey conducted by Dana Havas (key collaborator for this project) in September 2017 showed that many fiber farmers experience a fractured infrastructure, limiting their ability to market goods, increase revenue and improve quality of life. Up to now, most research and action initiatives performed concern marketing and increased consumer education. While these are important components in improving productivity, return, and quality of life, it is not comprehensive. This proposal aims to extend this previous research to come up with a more wholesome solution by addressing the fragmented ‘sheep-to-shawl’ infrastructure.
The NY Fiber Sourcebook, completed just this year by researchers at Cornell University and with approximately 70 farmer collaborators throughout NYS, describes yarns produced by these farms, including their mechanical and tensile strengths. The intention of this publication is to “inspire greater use of NYS yarns” by increasing quantitative and qualitative information available about these yarns. The NY Fiber Sourcebook will be a valuable resource for local farm to finished product/fashion endeavors such as Manufacture NY and the Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator .
The Natural Fiber Alliance (NFA) and the Minnesota Wool Project, SARE grant FNC14-965, addressed finding sustainable solutions in the Midwest wool market using surveys and building community-based solutions . The surveys, aimed at wool product manufacturers and intermediate processors, focused on the perception of locally sourced wool. The information gathered was then pooled and a collective program, whose goal is to help farmers market their goods, was created. The NFA project is similar to this proposal in that surveys and collective action will be used to solve a fiber community problem. The key difference is in that this proposal will extend beyond marketing in hopes to create a more sustainable fiber farm community that will act to address the infrastructure problems.
Making community connections is valuable to small farmers, as is evidenced by the NFA and other organizations such as the many and various small ruminant listservs that currently exist throughout the North East. Listservs are used to disseminate information and resources, as well as market livestock among farmers or interested consumers, over large areas. The MidAtlantic Sheep & Goat Marketing listserv hosted by the University of Maryland Extension, at the time of their final report publication, had over 1065 sheep and goat producers from over 40 states using the listserv . While a valuable resource that emphasizes the importance of building farming communities, it does not bring together farmers of a region to solve regional problems that can only be addressed through conversation and joint decision making that leads to local initiatives.
The aim of this proposal is to employ the strength of community-engaged solutions to address the fragmented sheep-to-shawl infrastructure that extends beyond finding unique marketing opportunities. This is important because consumer/end-user trends are volatile in that they depend greatly on social and economic descriptors . While marketing does address a component in the sheep-to-shawl chain it is not the whole picture, and there are other components, including inconsistent shearers, wool to processing shipping requirements, high cost and inconsistent processing, that also need to be addressed for a more holistic solution to be reached. The goal of this proposal is to begin to address these challenges as a community and forge the way for other fiber farming communities to do the same.
H. Trejo, The New York Regional Yarn Sourcebook, Ithaca: Cornell University, 2017.
H. Trejo, T. Lewis and M. Thonney, “Beyond Wool: New York’s Diverse Fibershed for Textiles and Clothing,” Textile Society of America 2014 Biennial Symposium Proceedings: New Directions Examining the Past, Creating the Future, 2014.
J. Mueller, “Final Report for FNC14-965 Developing Profitable and Sustainable Fiber Markets in Southern Minnesota,” NE-SARE, 2015.
S. Schoenian, “LN04-211 Mid-Atlantic Sheep & Goat Marketing Project,” NE-SARE, 2008.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada- Office of Consumer Affairs, “Conclusion – Making Sense of Consumer Trends,” 05 2011. [Online]. Available: https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/oca-bc.nsf/eng/ca02119.html. [Accessed 10 2017].
The Sheep-to-Shawl project involves creating and implementing a simple project management protocol within the Lower Finger-Lakes/CNY fiber producing community to identify and address communal supply chain challenges.
To assess the effectiveness of this protocol as best as possible, a ‘quality of life’ assessment (QoLSurvey_Sept20181) was created and distributed prior to and post protocol (August 2018 and December 2019). This questionnaire has a control and treatment group (control being those not involved with the group working with this project). The quality of life questionnaire was distributed using the Qualtrics Survey software to the Cornell Sheep and Goat Management list-serve, whose primary circulation is to NY State sheep and goat producers but also include alpaca farmers as well as people from surrounding states. A test survey was presented to a small group of sample individuals prior to distribution in order to test the survey and its comprehension.
The first step in identifying and addressing communal supply chain challenges is to collect the needs of the community. This was done through 2 primary routes:
interview and focus group, based on a previously existing survey.
A focus group was organized at our Summer 2018 Quarterly meeting. From previous interviews, 3 broad areas were identified as high need topics: education, marketing, and production/processing. At the quarterly meeting, the farmers were asked to randomly break into groups (one group for each of the topics) and were given 20 minutes to discuss the needs associated with each topic and give more detail to the needs previously identified through the existing questionnaire results. Each group was given a large piece of paper and a copy of their group’s topic and previously identified needs related to their topic. They were asked to write down needs that came out of their discussion. This paper was then collected from each group at the end of the meeting. (Two things of note: Discussion of the needs, post group, was not pursued in order to stave off the conversation of solutions at that time. This is because we want to guide the discussion of solutions. Also, the producers requested that future discussion or brainstorming items be distributed prior to the meeting so that they could have more time to consider ideas).
The collected information from ‘the needs discussion’ was then used as a framework to create a needs review questionnaire. Again broken down into broad topics the questionnaire was distributed to relevant producers and the producers were asked to rate each identified need on a scale from 1 to 5 with one being a low need and 5 being a high need. This questionnaire was open for ~1 month.
Once the ‘Needs Review Survey’ (NeedsReview1_Sept2018) closed the results were collected and tallied. The highest valued results were distributed prior to the next quarterly meeting (October 2018) where they were presented. The needs were again broken down into the 3 main topics of education, marketing, and processing/production. At this quarterly meeting, the farmers were asked to randomly break into groups (one group for each of the topics) and were given 20 minutes to brainstorm possible solutions for each of the needs presented. Each group, again, received a copy of their topic and its needs as well as a large piece of paper and marker to write ideas. At the end of the 20 minutes, each group was asked to present 3 solutions they came up with to facilitate discussion. The papers were collected so that a solution-weighing-matrix questionnaire (SWM) could be created from their ideas. Besides discussion at the meeting, producers were encouraged to continue to send ideas via email for another 2 weeks prior to the SWM questionnaire was created and distributed.
Once the 2-week open concept period ended the SWM questionnaire (SolutionsSurvey_Dec2018) was created and distributed to relevant producers using google forms. Again the solutions were broken into topics: education, marketing, and processing. The producers were asked to fill out a Likert-type scale for each solution in regards to 3 perceptions: ease of execution, the value of the solution to the community, and their personal interest in the solution. The survey was open for ~1 month and midway through this period the producers received a reminder again prodding them to ‘Take Part in Creating Solutions’. The results from this survey were then presented and voted upon at the subsequent Quarterly meeting (in order to keep the number of solutions manageable only items that received a weight of 30 or above were presented and voted upon).
At the following Quarterly meeting members in attendance were tasked to identify the solution-concept that LocalFiber would work towards implementing. Voting took place using the ‘Poll-everywhere‘ software. There was a small learning curve to using this software, but overall attendees found it ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ to use. Voting took place in person at the quarterly meeting with the thought that regular attendees of these meetings are the most invested in LocalFiber and the most likely to engage and contribute to committees, a necessity concerning the next steps – which is to implement the identified solution.
Immediately after the solution was identified, attendees were asked to choose an initiative they found interesting. We then broke into groups to establish timelines and goals associated with the solution(s). A failure that we have since learned from was at this same meeting it was assumed that when folks chose the solution-groups they were interested in that they had ‘signed-up’ to be a part of the committee which would see this task through to completion. Through feedback, we have since learned that the chosen solution should be made public and a request for committee members and committee leads should go out, so that people may have time to consider the options and availability. In future iterations, after the solution is chosen groups gather to simply brainstorm the solution in more detail, the results of this brainstorm are then shared with the final committee once it is chosen.
This project produced a variety of different results from successfully collectively identifying specific community-driven needs and solutions, overwhelmingly positive impact of LocalFiber on the community and improvements that can be made moving forward.
Community Response to the Process of Identifying & Addressing Shared Challenges
In a questionnaire distributed to those actively involved with LocalFiber, and therefore those likely to have contributed/responded to surveys that identified needs and solutions, respondents were asked about their experience with the process LocalFiber used to identify and address shared challenges (the primary subject of this project). 17 of the 27 respondents expressed that they took part at some point in the process, those who did not take part in the conversation noted that this was due to their lack of experience or a desire to ‘listen/standby’.
Overall respondents felt that their ideas were heard and the decisions made were of value to the community. They also felt that the decision-making process made sense and was successful, as shown in Table 1: Community response to the decision making process.
|Table 1: Community response to the decision-making process|
|When identifying needs and solutions in the regional fiber community my ideas were heard.||5.96|
|I believe the chosen initiative will be of value to the community.||6.12|
|The process of decision making made sense (ranking of needs, a weighted ranking of possible solutions, voting on the final solution).||6.27|
|The process of decision making was successful in choosing a community chosen initiative (ranking of needs, a weighted ranking of possible solutions, voting on the final solution).||6.00|
The rankings were made on a scale from 1 – 7; 1 being ‘I do not agree’ and 7 being ‘I very much agree’. The results showed the process was successful at making people feel included and heard, and a solution was identified which the community as a whole feels is valuable.
Effect of Community Driven Development on the Community
A major take away from this grant project was just how much positive impact community-driven development has had on the regional local fiber community. Through the deliberate identification of shared challenges and solutions, the collective effort of working together to create change, and the incidentals of gathering and building community this project has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the regional fiber community. So much so that other nearby communities are asking if LocalFiber can be replicated in their region, making these effects more accessible to their local communities (a task currently being addressed by the LocalFiber Board of Directors).
While quantitative analysis of a ‘quality of life’ questionnaire, sent out prior to and post-grant cycle showed little change between the concerns of active LocalFiber members versus non-LocalFiber fiber producers in the region (see the QoL results document), a follow-up qualitative survey distributed to solely LocalFiber members show a profound effect of LocalFiber and the SARE grant ONE18-321.
The qualitative survey sent out to LocalFiber members showed that the work done under the SARE grant ONE18-321 has had a profound effect on the LocalFiber community. Some key qualitative results from the project are highlighted in Table 2: Qualitative Results from Community-Driven Development.
|Table 2: Qualitative Results from Community-Driven Development (27 respondents)|
|What do you find valuable about attending the Quarterly Meetings?|
|Networking & relationship building||17|
|problem solving & discussion||8|
|Why have you attended additional LocalFiber events (funded in part by SARE grant ONE18-321)|
|to gain knowledge/education||14|
|build relationships/nurture collaboration||12|
|a general interest in the topic||3|
|How has LocalFiber helped in building your fiber-related community?|
|opportunities to meet new people||15|
|gain a broader understanding of the community||6|
|creating new opportunities/business||5|
|creating access to a more diverse array of people||5|
|working together/sharing similar goals||5|
|How has LocalFiber helped to improve your fiber-related business (through the ONE18-321)|
|increase in market opportunities||9|
|increase in information||4|
|learning how to navigate the supply chain||4|
|increase in public awareness||1|
In the same questionnaire, respondents were asked to rate a handful of statements regarding the relationship between their engagement with LocalFiber and its effects on their fiber-related business (Table 3: Effect of LocalFiber on its members). They were asked to rate the statements on a scale from 1-7; 1 being ‘I do not agree’ and 7 being ‘I very much agree’. Overall the results show that the work LocalFiber does in bring the community together to identify and address shared challenges has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the community.
|Table 3: Effect of LocalFiber on its members (27 respondents)|
|LocalFiber has helped to build my fiber-related to community||5.93|
|LocalFiber has helped me to connect with other fiber producers||6.07|
|LocalFiber helps me to connect with fiber artists||5.52|
|LocalFiber has helped me to connect with manufacturers||4.48|
|LocalFiber has helped to improve my fiber-related business||5.31|
Community Specific Needs
Table 4: Community Identified High-ranked Needs shows the community-specific needs that were identified during the course of this project using the Needs Review Questionnaire.
|Table 4: Community Identified High-ranked Needs|
|Marketing Related Needs|
|An increase in the value of fiber|
|A market for fiber related goods|
|A decrease in marketing/selling time|
|A market for raw fiber|
|Innovative uses for fiber|
|A decrease in marketing costs|
|Processing Related Needs|
|A better processing time/turnover|
|A decrease in production costs|
|Better processing options|
|Education Related Needs|
It was apparent after the Needs Review questionnaire results came back that more detail is needed for future needs assessment, as many of the producers commented on the vagueness of the needs descriptions. In the future the needs review we will aim to gather more detailed information concerning the perceived needs.
Community Specific Solutions
Similar to the needs community-driven solutions were also a by-product of this project.
The solution concepts identified using the solution weighting questionnaire are presented in Table 5: Results of the Solution Weighting Matrix.
|Table 5: Results of Solution Weighting Matrix|
|Organize guild meet-n-greets|
|Create Fiber-related classes for the public|
|Develop a mill resource guide (already developed)|
|Organize a conversation between producers and mill owners|
|Create/build a common-use facility|
|Create/design a LocalFiber hangtag|
|Organize a fiber club to introduce different fibers to the market|
The solution that was chosen for LocalFiber to collectively pursue, as per the voting process described in Materials and Methods, was ‘Create fiber-related classes for the public‘, with 7 of the 19 people in attendance voting for this option. This was followed by ‘Mill & producer conversations‘ and ‘Common use facility‘ with a vote of 4/19, ‘LocalFiber hang-tag’ with a vote of 2/19, and ‘Monthly fiber club‘ with a vote of 1/19. Only 1 solution was identified for LocalFiber to implement from this list due to the limited resources, mainly two other committees also starting for the LocalFiber Conference and establishing a Board of Directors.
There are a couple of challenges worth noting that were identified throughout the duration of the project including low questionnaire response rate, and community buy-in & follow-thru.
Questionnaire response rate
This project was questionnaire heavy, and questionnaires were present early on in the process. This means questionnaire issues that arose were able to be addressed during the lifetime of the grant cycle. A key issue that was recognized early on was the questionnaire response rate (discussed in Materials and Methods). The first questionnaire resulted in a response rate of 7 responses from a community of 70 (10% of LocalFiber members). A discussion on response rates was had at the LocalFiber quarterly meeting when the results were discussed, and the consensus was that regular reminders would help to increase response rates to future questionnaires. For the following questionnaire – the Solution Weighting Questionnaire – a reminder was sent about half-way through the response collection period and an increase in responses was noted. A total of 21 responses were collected (30% of the LocalFiber members).
Community buy-in & follow thru
Another key challenge that was encountered, during the duration of the project, was seeing the identified solution(s) through to completion. This was something that LocalFiber failed to achieve in regards to the identified solution – Fiber related classes for the public – but has identified three possible root causes through discussion and observation of other successful LocalFIber initiatives. The three identified root causes are; Organizational capacity; Giving members time to consider options and availability and; Having a key goal and end/production date.
Immediately after the solution of Creating Fiber-related classes for the public was identified a committee was formed. The committee was formed at the very same meeting by having those present chose which initiative they were interested in and then gathering with like-minded folks to start devising a timeline and more specificity. (Two other initiatives were also identified at the same meeting: Organizing the LocalFiber conference and organizing a steering committee to develop bylaws and a board of directors for LocalFiber). Of the three initiatives, the only one that failed was developing classes for the public. After discussion with the members of these committees, giving people time to weigh their options and availability was identified as a key component of the failure. Subsequent successful attempts at forming committees have since involved identifying people who would be interested in leading the committee and then pursuing committee members. Once an initiative has been identified individuals who have expressed strong interest in the initiative are asked if they would like to chair the committee, once the chair is in place a google form is sent out to the LocalFiber membership to identify committee members that will help in developing and implementing the plan.
While Creating Fiber-related Classes for the Public failed, the initiative Organizing a LocalFiber Conference was successful (an initiative that was established at the same meeting using the same, later improved, committee development method). A key difference between these initiatives was having a definitive goal with a specified date of delivery. Once the date of the conference was set committee members felt an obligation to see the project through and had a role in the responsibility of achieving the goal. Early on, during the process initiative development, the committee also gave themselves a go/no-go deadline, during which they had the option to decide if they would or would not pursue this initiative. Other successful future initiatives, such as a winter 2020 pop-up had similar hard go/no-go & delivery dates in comparison to initiatives that seem to falter – developing a curriculum for local College/University arts and textile courses.
Finally, organizational capacity is also a key component that may result in initiative failure and is also evidenced by the first round of initiatives mentioned above. Through observation, it was noticed that the LocalFiber conference required all available ‘hands-on-deck’. Being a volunteer-run organization with a limited number of active members who have availability to involve themselves with activities outside of their daily lives only so many initiatives can be pursued (depending on the attention given initiative requires). Subsequent successful initiatives have been the result of ‘one-at-a-time’ starts. This does not mean that multiple initiatives cannot be pursued but instead implies that until a larger capacity is had only once a given initiative is running should another be considered.
The goal of this project was to devise a set of guidelines that communities could use to accurately identify and address shared challenges. While there were a number of hurdles, identified in results and discussion, the project was considered a success. The primary measure of success is that the farmers and other stakeholders who came together to fulfill this project have continued work at identifying and addressing shared challenges. The number of farmers who are taking part in this practice has also grown over the course of the grant period, another indicator that the work being done is seen as valuable by the community. The list farmers and other stakeholders interested in the work LocalFiber does in the CNY and Finger Lakes fiber communities has grown from 28 in January of 2018 to 120 as of February 2020.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Consultations are a part of some of the quarterly meetings. At the beginning of these quarterly meetings were roundtables or panel discussions that involved educating folks about different aspects of the fiber supply chain and/or the challenges associated with the supply chain that the small flock producer faces.
Curricula, Factsheet & Educational Tools (and on-farm workshop):
This was in conjunction with an on-farm workshop on skirting fleece. This workshop was organized in response to the request of a number of shepherds who wanted to gain understanding and experience skirting to increase the marketing value of their fiber. It was a 2-hour workshop led by one of the farmer collaborators (Karen Stern) made up of a demonstration, a hands-on session, and a fact-sheet on how to skirt.
A brochure was developed to share the outline of the grant project. This brochure is available on the LocalFiber website and at all LocalFiber events. (LocalFIber-tri-fold)
Webinars, Talks, and Presentations:
5 monthly ‘Meet the Shepherd’ talks given at the local library. Each month a different shepherd from the local community is invited to share their experience as a shepherd. This was organized in response to the need for community outreach. It was a 1-hour talk with Q&A, the other shepherds and the public are invited to attend.
In addition to ‘Meet the Shepherd’ talks, and to encourage a deeper conversation in the fiber community LocalFiber has also hosted 2 ‘Meet the Maker’ talks. One focused on the work of a local fiber mill owner and her experiences working with farms and designers from throughout the region and beyond, and the other highlighted the work of a renowned weaver who works primarily with regionally produced fibers.
The LocalFiber Conference, held in July of 2019 was organized in response to this grant. With over 90 attendees, a keynote speaker (Lynn Edens), 4 talks/discussions, and 6 demonstrations. The focus of the conference was the regional fiber supply chain and what we can do together. (Edens_LFConferenceKeynote)
The on-farm workshop is in response to requests from the community to increase farmer education concerning skirting for different end purposes (hand-spinner, mill, other).
Published Press articles or newsletters:
An article was written for a knitting magazine, Nomadic Knits, about the history of the small flock local fiber supply chain and the challenges the farmers currently face in navigating this supply chain (12/2018).
There are 2 monthly newsletters: one to the public and one to local fiber producers through-out the region.
The public newsletter draws attention to different fiber-related activities and events in our region, shares a little bit about what the fiber producers group (LocalFiber) is up to, and invites them to take part by attending and/or volunteering at different events.
The fiber producer monthly newsletter is more in-depth and works to keep the fiber producers involved and in the loop as to the activities and items being pursued by the community (LocalFiber).
LocalFiber members were invited to attend a tour of Green Mountain Spinnery, in Putney VT. A cooperative spinning mill that has been running since 1981. This tour was upon the request of the LocalFiber membership to better understand how a cooperative structure can be successful as well as better understand the process and challenges a spinning mill of this size faces (lead time, maintenance, wastewater, etc.)
Other Educational Activities:
Quarterly meeting (as described above)
LocalFiber education table at a variety of festivals throughout the Finger Lakes and CNY region (CNY Fiber Festival, Ithaca Apple Festival, Winter Recess Fiber and Arts Festival)
Community Table at Fiber-Market (Schweinfurth Art Museum, Auburn NY):
This is the first opportunity for the community to have a community table at a local fiber festival/market. This is an action in response to producers who are not able to make it to festivals/markets or do not have enough items to attend a festival/market on their own. The community will host a table so that these folk can have the opportunity to gain income from a market opportunity.
A series of blog articles were written about SARE grant ONE18-321 on the LocalFiber website.
The pop-up was held for 6 weeks from Nov through Dec 2019. Managed by 17 different fiber producers. Educational pamphlets were made available throughout the duration of the shop. Farmers and makers were able to meet and talk, learn from each other. A variety of demonstrations were held to encourage the greater community to use and better understand regionally produced fibers.
The following farmer reported changes were noted (also seen in results and discussion):
- Increased experience and understanding of opportunities
- Improve community network/ build connections/build market through the network
- Tangible ways to bolster business and improve farm viability
- help with sales and gathering information for own farm practices
- Improved confidence, inspiration, motivation, hope
- Mentorship – helping farmers feel prepared when making fiber-related business changes
- expand product reach
- Where and how to find a market
- Identification of market avenues
- Sense of community
The group, through LocalFiber, has grown stronger and has a map to continue. Some objectives were accomplished and we hope to see continued impact and success in the years to come.