Value-added Sustainable Animal Production with Natural and Organic Leathers

2006 Annual Report for FNC05-549

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $5,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:

Value-added Sustainable Animal Production with Natural and Organic Leathers


For organic and sustainable animal production, the potential for adding 20 to 40 percent to the overall value of each animal may be realized through natural leather and hair-on hide production and marketing. This project proposes to investigate the technical, economic, and environmental aspects of natural leather production for sustainable and organic farms.

Leather tanning trials were conducted first using completely natural and organic methods based on time-honored Native American methods of both wet-scrape and dry-scrape processes. These processes were applied to deer, buffalo, sheep, and a variety of fur-bearers. Some of these hides were purchased with grant funds. Methods were video-taped and documented to be included in the project video and final report. Some video production expenses have been applied to the grant funds.

I also conducted extensive literature and methodology reviews on two additional promising natural methods of leather production 1) vegetable/bark tannins and 2) bio-engineered enzymes. Trials will commence soon on the bark tannin process, and grant funds have been used to purchase the proper tannin concentration tester, containers, and bark extracts.

I have begun constructing a survey for use in investigating a target audience regarding the purchase or use of natural leathers from sustainably grown animals. This includes both individual consumers, as well as potential large market buyers of leather goods such as Birkenstock. I am currently looking into methods of conducting the survey for reliable results that can be applied in the North Central Region.

I have discussed at length involvement of an expert in small farm business planning. I will be working with him later next year with my results to conduct economic feasibility and a business plan.

Results from the wet-scrape and dry-scrape native tanning process trials show that these methods can provide high quality natural garment leather. These methods are time intensive, with detailed knowledge necessary to achieve a high quality end product. However, the method is applicable to primarily a small scale or farm scale as I have not yet devised a way to mechanize these highly organic and labor intensive processes. I have interviewed and discussed this with several well known native tanners in the U.S. and at this point no one has succeeded in mechanizing these processes. This may prove to be a significant barrier for a regional tannery to use these processes economically. None-the-less, there is a niche market for this leather with customers willing to pay between $12 and $18 per square foot for the finished leather (compares with $4 - $6 per square foot for commercially produced leather).

In pre-trial literature reviews, I discovered that the cutting edge enzyme process involves genetic engineering and won’t quality as an organic or perhaps even a “natural” process. These enzymatic processes are highly proprietary at this time and I have had difficulty obtaining information from the several companies producing them. I do have a lead with an USDA-ARS project in Pennsylvania that is now conducting several research trials on these enzymes. I hope to learn more in the near future, as I do think that these enzymes have potential for greatly reducing risks of environmental contamination by replacing some of the traditional chemical tanning agents.

The bark tannin process is also a time honored one and one that could offer a chance of mechanization and be economically feasible for small scale regional production. These processes are also very proprietary often with certain tanneries having their own guarded methods of production. Many nuances during the process result in widely differing types of leather. The bark tannin process does not, however, usually result in garment-type leather. Instead this process produces thicker, more durable leather for use in shoes, boots, belts, bags, saddles, and the like. I have located the only organically certified tannery in Europe that uses a bark extract based tanning process. They focus exclusively on sheep skins at this time, producing a wool-on “baby pad or blanket” product fetching a high market price. I have also contacted another family based tannery in Oregon that is pursuing organic certification and is working out mechanization issues. There is potential that we will work together on aspects of this process.

A. Conduct and document bark tannin trials, and if I can obtain the proper enzyme treatments, I will also conduct the enzyme trials. Another potentially useful treatment I will conduct is the use of lecithin from soybeans as a tanning agent.

B. Conduct and analyze a survey of potential customers and consumers of these natural leather products.

C. Investigate the potential of used commercial tannery equipment to be obtained and retrofitted for some level of mechanization to reduce the labor requirements of the natural leather production process.

D. This project plans to work with economists and a small agricultural business planner next year on economic analysis and a business plan for potential organic or natural leather products company.

E. Produce a final video describing and showing the process and results of the natural leather project with discussion on the potential for a regional tannery that can provide a premium price for hides from sustainably grown animals.

F. Complete and submit project forms and final report.

I have talked at length several times with another tanner in Oregon who is pursuing similar goals as my project. There is potential that we will work together on some aspects of this idea. I have also shared my knowledge and results of the project thus far with a few interested individuals in the area. I have had a lot of interest in the Native American methods from around the region, but only from a standpoint that they would like to learn these methods themselves.

I will be producing a video documenting the project results that will be shared with those interested.

I will design and post a web site that will contain the video for online viewing, as well as documentation, final reports, etc. on the various tanning methods and potential for a regional small scale natural tannery.

If the results indicate that these methods could be applied in an economically feasible manner for this region, at a farm scale or regional scale, then there should be interest from both sustainable livestock producers and from leather buyers. I would disseminate information directly, and perhaps through a presentation at the Midwest Small Farm conference that normally is hosted here in Indiana.