Making the Most of Fine Fleece: Environmental, Economic, and Social Costs and Benefits of Alternative Strategies for Marketing Sheep Wool

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $10,646.00
Projected End Date: 11/10/2017
Grant Recipient: Prairie Shepherd
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Linda Poole
Prairie Shepherd

Annual Reports


  • Animals: sheep
  • Animal Products: fiber, fur, leather


  • Animal Production: amenity products
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, mentoring, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study, market study, new enterprise development, value added
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, sustainability measures, values-based supply chains

    Proposal summary:

    Farmers have long kept small flocks of sheep to manage weeds and grass around the farmstead. Requiring little infrastructure and being relatively easy to handle, sheep added minimal expense to family farms while they reduced land maintenance costs, helped fill farmers’ freezers with high quality meat, and boosted farm income through lamb sales.  But sheep numbers in the U.S. have declined a staggering 80% since 1960. Most landowners now mow or use herbicides to control vegetation around their facilities. Summer fallow, field edges, and crop residues that once were grazed by sheep are now tilled or sprayed to control vegetation.  Ironically, while sheep numbers were plummeting, conservation scientists were documenting the success of targeted sheep grazing in controlling weeds, reducing fire hazards, and managing plant succession in natural communities for the benefit of native wildlife and plants. Food scientists recently reported that grass-raised lamb is one of the most healthful of proteins, with a fatty acid profile approaching that of salmon. And now the burgeoning consumer appetite for local/sustainable/handcrafted/homegrown goods has created a fiber market niche uniquely fitted to the ever-declining number of small-scale shepherds.  The Slow Food movement is paralleled by fiber artists eager for what could be called “Slow Fiber:” small amounts of very high quality fleece with a “good story” behind it. Fiber connoisseurs want to connect with family farmers who in turn will share their deep ties to land, livestock, nature, and family with people who buy their fiber. Handspinners want to be a valued part of the circle of life through their purchase of fine fiber from a friendly family farmer.  Shepherds need this connection as well. Most small-scale shepherds operate at a loss or with a thin margin of profit, and prices fluctuate wildly in commodity sheep markets. Sketchy economics aren’t conducive to good husbandry, let alone allowing shepherds to pass their land and livestock onto the next generation. One way to bring young people back into sheep-based agriculture is to exploit niches of value-added fiber products, particularly those products that exemplify good stewardship, integrity, and sustainability.  The U.S. market for handspinning fiber has 35,000 fiberists spending $41,000,000 annually (The National NeedleArts Association, 2013). Certainly there are some shepherds with healthy businesses marketing specialty wool, such as Joanna Gleason ( and Dee Heinrich ( But nationally-acclaimed fiber arts teacher Judith MacKenzie estimated that perhaps 5% of the many specialty fiber businesses launched become profitable and persist more than a few years. Clearly there are shepherds eager to supply this market, but it is a difficult enterprise in which to succeed.  We need a planning tool for shepherds considering a specialty fiber enterprise. Despite several years of diligent research I know of no systematic study to help shepherds evaluate the likely economic, environmental, and social costs and benefits of a fine fiber enterprise. I’ve researched this because as a farm-flock shepherd, I’ve seen that selling small quantities of non-standard wool through commodity channels is neither feasible nor profitable.  For five years I’ve sold most of my wool through commodity channels, receiving less than $2.50/pound on average. All natural-colored fleeces have been unsaleable through this venue. But in 2013 one of my colored Corriedale fleeces was chosen Handspinning Sweepstakes Champion of the Montana State Fair. In addition to award money, I sold this and another similar fleece for $20/pound to handspinners at the fair. I also prepared two Targhee fleeces, one of which won Best Fleece of Show. The Targhee fleeces sold for $12/pound after the competition. Award and sales income from these four fleeces totaled $556, while through the commodity market I would have received $45 for the same fiber.  As a handspinner myself, I’ve purchased fiber from across the U.S. as well as sold fleece to people as far away as New Jersey. There is a lucrative market for wool like I raise, if I can develop strategies to efficiently process and market it. There are several other beginning, small-scale shepherds nearby also eager to sell specialty fiber, but they can’t risk time and money in testing the market. We all struggle with the (poor) economics of (small) scale, and that’s kept small shepherds down for too long.  Therefore this project will develop seven fiber products, market them through three marketing venues, and compare the economics of home processing versus sending fleece to commercial mills for processing. We will determine environmental impacts, economic profit/loss, and likely social implications of each product/method. We’ll share lessons learned through creating educational materials to help small-scale shepherds consider if and how they might profit from creating a specialty fiber enterprise. We’ll educate fiber consumers about the sustainability of farm-crafted wools and explain how their purchases are a vital link in keeping good stewards on the land. To encourage beginning shepherds, we will offer classes and on-farm learning experiences to 4-H, FFA, and homeschool youths. And finally, we’ll tell the story of the project through a blog, website, and news releases to regional agriculture and national crafting publications. 

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The overarching goal of this project is to help small-scale sheep producers accurately evaluate if they might improve the sustainability and profitability of their sheep operations through sales of specialty fiber products. Through careful testing of alternative methods for the production and marketing of wool-derived products, we will determine the environmental, economic, and social costs and benefits of likely alternatives for marketing fleece from fine-wool sheep. The target consumers for the products are fiber handcrafters and artists.   This group treasures and pays well for carefully prepared fiber from environmentally-responsible family farms.


    Specifically, our objectives are:


    Wool Product Development: manufacture various products for sale (Spring and Summer, 2015 and 2016)



      1. Obtain 300 pounds of freshly-sheared fleece in the 18-26 micron range. Breeds used will include Targhee, Merino, Corriedale, and crossbreds of the same


      1. Skirt and sort the fleece into uniform lines of wool based on micron count, staple length, color, and cleanliness


      1. Divide the wool into groups for various modes of processing and marketing as:
          1. Raw fleeces

          1. Roving and/or top

          1. Batts

          1. Yarn


      1. Fleece processed in Objective 3b and 3d will then be divided into three groups
          1. White, undyed

          1. Natural colored, undyed

          1. Dyed


      1. The fleece Category of 4c will be dyed in two ways
          1. Solar dyed using rainwater and environmentally-compatible acid dyes

          1. “Naturally dyed” using plant or insect sources in conjunction with metal mordants



    Product Marketing: position the product for marketing through three venues (Summer - Winter 2015)



      1. Research and develop logo, labeling, packaging, shipping plans, and sales agreements


      1. Build and maintain website to market wool-derived items


      1. Develop pilot project in marketing wool-derived items at regional sheep and wool fairs


      1. Investigate, and if feasible, initiate sales of products through at least one retail yarn and craft store



    Determining Costs and Benefits: (Throughout project duration)



      1. For each fiber product, environmental inputs and returns will be quantified
          1. Amount of water used

          1. Water quality of waste water (pH, nutrients, heavy metals, salts)

          1. Soil quality before and after waste water is discharged

          1. Estimate embedded energy and/or carbon footprint of each product, based on method of manufacture and sale


      1. Economic outcomes will be tracked and reported
          1. Material costs (fiber, dyes, scouring agents, labels, packaging materials)

          1. Shipping and transportation costs (postage, mileage, travel)

          1. Fees (licensing, craft fair registration)

          1. Income


      1. Social implications will be assessed (December 2016)
          1. Observed and extrapolated impacts to behavior and attitudes of shepherds

          1. Observed reactions of consumers

          1. Likely costs and benefits to shepherds and their rural communities



     Sharing Lessons Learned

    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.