Making the Most of Fine Fleece: Environmental, Economic, and Social Costs and Benefits of Alternative Strategies for Marketing Sheep Wool
WSARE Project #FW15-039 was first funded in July, 2015 and start-up funds of $5,323 were received August 3, 2015. This update briefly reports on progress to date and challenges encountered in this work.
In short, while I’ve expended considerably more resources toward the goals of this project than anticipated, the results have been mixed. Despite diligent effort, I’ve discovered that some of the original objectives are not feasible, and thus I will not be able to fully achieve the goals set out in the proposal. Details on this are included below.
I spent the year researching ways to resolve the discrepancy between what I promised to do, and what might actually be done to adhere to the over-arching intent of the project, which was to explore and report on ways that small-scale, ecologically-oriented sheep operations can improve profitability while enhancing environmental and community vitality.
In October, 2016, I talked with WSARE’s Regional Coordinator Rhonda Miller about the dilemma. In this discussion, I proposed either to 1) return to WSARE the $5323 received, and cancel the project; or alternatively, to 2) refocus the proposal toward a wider-reaching consideration of ways small-scale shepherds might produce a profit while regenerating land and strengthening rural economies. The final outreach effort would then report as much on what didn’t work for me, as well as on what did. Indeed if I had access to such a revealing report – warts and all, as my grandmother would have said – before I wrote the grant proposal, I could have been much more efficient in developing a sustainable shepherding enterprise.
Ms. Miller reviewed my written summary of information after our call, and then asked that I continue under the second alternative, including reporting on outcomes both positive and negative, as well as providing information on other potential avenues for sustainable small-scale sheep operations. This annual report includes progress to date as well as a timeline for completion of the project by July 2017.
Objectives and specific activities from the proposal are listed below, followed by summaries of progress shown in italics.
Wool Product Development: manufacture various products for sale (Spring and Summer, 2015 and 2016)
- 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. Completed. Shearing in 2015 and 2016 yielded roughly 807 pounds and 964 pounds respectively of marketable fleece.
- Skirt and sort the fleece into uniform lines of wool based on micron count, staple length, color, and cleanliness. Completed. In 2015, fleeces were skirted straight off the shearing floor, then bagged appropriately for wool line (i.e., by color, cleanliness, fiber diameter, etc.). In 2016, all fleeces were individually bagged and labeled, then later skirted and sorted as per 3.a-e below.
- Divide the wool into groups for various modes of processing and marketing as:
- Raw fleeces. Completed. These were primarily from sheep which had been coated with the goal of producing premium fleeces for wool competitions and eventual sales to handspinners.
- Roving and/or top. Completed. This wool and that reserved for yarn was the cleanest, strongest, longest fiber high-graded out of the uncoated fleeces. For most fleeces, about ¼ of the fleece, often from the shoulders and side, was sorted into this high-value line. The wool was sorted by color as well: white, gray, black, and moorit (red-brown).
- Batts. Completed. This wool line was mainly shorter-stapled Targhee fleeces with some vegetable matter contamination.
- Yarn. Completed as described in 3.b.
- Fiber remaining after skirting (tags were relegated to the compost heap) and sorting for the categories above was then bagged in five lines: fine (less than 23 micron) white wool; coarser white wool (23-26 micron); white belly wool; white wool with more vegetable matter contamination; and colored wool. White wool was sold to a commercial wool buyer and the colored wool was retained for use in making felted pet beds, dryer balls, and similar value-added products.
- Fleece processed in Objective 3b and 3d will then be divided into three groups for marketing as:
- White, undyed. Completed.
- Natural colored, undyed. Completed.
- Dyed. Completed.
- The fleece Category of 4c will be dyed in two ways:
- Solar dyed using rainwater and environmentally-compatible acid dyes. Completed.
- “Naturally dyed” using plant or insect sources in conjunction with metal (alum) mordant. Completed.
Product Marketing: position the product for marketing through three venues (Summer – Winter 2015)
- Research and develop logo, labeling, packaging, shipping plans, and sales agreements. I researched options then hired a graphic designer. We worked together over 10 weeks and I spent the entire $500 logo budget in drafting and refining logo alternatives. Dissatisfied with the final result, I have tabled the project for now. I researched and developed templates for labeling, packaging, shipping, and sales agreements.
- Build and maintain website to market wool-derived items. The website is active, though the shopping function is not yet complete and active. By the end of January 2017 I expect to complete the commerce portion of the website.
- Develop pilot project in marketing wool-derived items at regional sheep and wool fairs. It was a tremendous blow to discover that sales opportunities at well-established sheep and wool fairs are strictly limited through jury selection of vendors. As at juried art shows, there are many more businesses seeking to sell products than there is booth space available, so the sales opportunities go to long-established and successful fiber businesses, rather than creating a niche for new businesses. This objective cannot be achieved at well-established wool markets, so I am seeking out new wool shows within reasonable travel distance. In 2017 I have reserved a booth at two wool shows.
- Despite not obtaining a booth at the major regional wool market in Estes Park, Colorado, in 2015 I did exhibit raw fleeces there. The judge praised the quality of the fleeces, two of which won their categories. Half the fleeces I took to the market sold to handspinners at prices from $12-$24/pound.
- In 2015 I took fleeces to both the Montana State Fair in Great Falls and Montana Fair in Billings; in 2016 I took fleeces to the Montana State Fair. The results were very gratifying, with most of the fleeces winning their classes. My fleeces took overall championships at both fairs and many of the fleeces sold to handspinners at these events at the Montana State Fair.
- Investigate, and if feasible, initiate sales of products through at least one retail yarn and craft store. Completed, though the experience was not a positive one. I met with the owner of the most successful yarn shop in Billings, Montana, and quizzed Julia on products, prices, and services expected to produce a profit both for the store and for me as a producer. Based on this, I produced kits (one for wet-felted handsoaps, and another for nuno-felted scarves), taught a workshop on nuno-felting (using the scarf kit), and refined plans for the processing of my 2016 wool clip into various yarns, roving, and top that might be marketable through Julia’s store. I delivered the felt kits for sale by consignment, where they sold steadily. But when the yarn store was sold, it took months of tense communication to obtain full payment for my products from the new owner. I decided against continuing this business arrangement.
Determining Costs and Benefits: (Throughout project duration). Ongoing. I have been tracking environmental and economic outcomes of each product I’ve prototyped. I have not yet summarized these data nor assessed social implications.
- For each fiber product, environmental inputs and returns will be quantified
- Amount of water used
- Water quality of waste water (pH, nutrients, heavy metals, salts). I sent water quality samples from various steps in wool washing and dyeing to be analyzed by the Soil, Water, and Plant Testing Lab at Colorado State University. Results were definitive that the waste water from any phase of wool processing should not be used for irrigation or stockwater. Thus any testing of the effects of the discharged water on soil is not necessary.
- Just one round of water tests (summarized in Table 1) showed that while not even my tap water is usable for irrigation (thanks to the geologic formations from which my well water arises), the process of “natural” dyeing is more damaging to water quality than the use of acid dyes. I conclude that my breeding strategy to include natural colored sheep in the flock is surely the best and likely the only environmentally-sound way to produce colored wool on my property. wool dye water test summary 2016
- Soil quality before and after waste water is discharged
- Estimate embedded energy and/or carbon footprint of each product, based on method of manufacture and sale
- Economic outcomes will be tracked and reported
- Material costs (fiber, dyes, scouring agents, labels, packaging materials)
- Shipping and transportation costs (postage, mileage, travel)
- Fees (licensing, craft fair registration)
- Social implications will be assessed (December 2016)
- Observed and extrapolated impacts to behavior and attitudes of shepherds
- Observed reactions of consumers
- Likely costs and benefits to shepherds and their rural communities
Sharing Lessons Learned
- Initiate, and maintain for the duration of the project, a blog on the objectives, progress, and outcomes of this project. Not completed due to lack of time. I found that spending seven days a week, twelve hours a day, at doing the work left no time for writing about it. In researching blogs, I discovered that most are done poorly, and I don’t see it as beneficial to start a blog unless it can be timely, accurate, compelling, and visually appealing. Some successful fiber business people say that blogs are not worth the time, but that Facebook brings in good business. I’m still considering how best to move forward on this.
- Hold one field day per year at the ranch to demonstrate the project to the three target audiences; the event will include hands-on fiber experiences for participants as well as distribution of printed summary materials. This objective was not completed and is not feasible. I talked to my insurance agent about hosting a public event at my ranch. The agent said this type of event poses significant liability, and would require an estimated $1,000 or more for a supplemental short-term liability policy. Additionally, in researching sheep health protocols I discovered that some sheep diseases can pose significant human health risk, especially to children and pregnant women. Biosecurity of the flock can also be compromised by contaminants coming into lambing areas on the clothing of visitors. While any one of these hurdles could be surmounted, considering the combination of risks, I decided against having public events at my ranch.
- Offer at least one fiber-based class or workshop, ideally in conjunction with a well-respected yarn store, in a technique using wool products produced in this project (I’ve received an invitation from one of Montana’s leading yarn shops to teach a class on painting with wool, a form of wet felting). Completed.
- At key junctions in the project (before and after events, and once our fieldwork results are in), write articles on the project for submission to regional ag publications (such as the Prairie Star), sheep industry journals (Montana Wool Grower, sheep!, The Shepherd), and fiber arts journals (Spin Off). Not completed, pending results of fieldwork.
- Offer presentations to local 4-H, FFA, and homeschool groups on the sustainable production of sheep, with hands-on experiences on the uses of wool, such as making felted soaps or pet beds. Completed.
- Engender entrepreneurial and stewardship skills for the next generation by providing training and support for up to three young shepherds wanting to explore developing a niche business related to production of handspinning fleeces or related wool products. I am working closely with one young shepherd in all aspects of selecting, purchasing and managing her first flock of sheep. I trained Brett and a friend of hers in wet-felting techniques, and shared my preliminary information on costs, returns, and market interest in various handmade fiber goods. Together, Brett and I sorted fleeces from her flock to maximize value by saving the best for 4-H exhibition and sales to handspinners, while the rest went to volume sales through the regional wool buyer. We also worked side-by-side to evaluate her lambs for breeding potential, especially related to wool characteristics. I provided her with an excellent ram lamb for breeding her young ewes as a way to help her improve her flock.
As I encountered unforeseen difficulties in achieving some of the objectives of my proposal, I ramped up efforts to find other potential avenues to enhance sustainability for small-scale shepherds. Part of the final months of this project will consist of exploring some fiber-related options warranting further research:
- Participation in spinning guilds to expand marketing opportunities for fleece.
- Researching new fiber festivals and securing a booth early, before jury selection collapses opportunities for beginning fiber businesses.
- Providing services, such as giving talks (I gave the keynote address at the Great Falls Spinners and Weavers Guild Fall Retreat this month), teaching classes, writing articles or being the focus of articles written by others (the Great Falls Tribune covered the Fall Fiber Retreat, and based on that, a free-lance writer has arranged to write an article about my small-scale fiber and sheep business).
- Finding a sustainable product for each type of wool, and testing to see if the product can be made sustainably and for a profit. Some items I’m prototyping are felted pet beds, vehicle seat covers, yurt felt, dryer balls, cleaning pads, and cushions.
And beyond fiber, other options I am exploring are:
- Developing informal cooperatives of small producers to improve profitability through volume purchases of inputs (such as lamb milk replacer for raising orphan lambs), trailer-load sales of market lambs, and combined marketing/processing of wool.
- Strategic breeding programs to develop efficient, healthy, and productive sheep for grass-based production on the northern prairies. After researching 20 breeds, I have trialed eight breeds, and settled on developing a specific crossbred of three breeds. This type of intensive investigation is reported to be too expensive and difficult for small-scale shepherds, yet my results are very encouraging. Other producers are now seeking out my lambs for replacement broodstock, and even handspinners are contacting me about my crossbreeding program as a route toward obtaining “designer fleece.”
- Direct sales of grassfed lambs to customers. I am developing a cadre of satisfied customers, and would like to see how to expand this enterprise. I looked into the idea of sales at farmers’ markets, but that seems to have a steep start-up investment. More research is warranted for my operation in the area of meat sales.
- Harvesting, processing, and sales of sheep pelts from butcher lambs. This is turning out to be one of the most profitable parts of my business.
- Obtaining certification to increase visibility and demand for my products, such animal welfare, wildlife-friendly, and predator-friendly certifications.
- Compost: Straw, hay, and dung from the lambing corrals makes wonderful, rich compost in one year with minimal effort. The verdant growth of my garden with this compost has caught the eye of other gardeners. I would like to test the compost (nutrients, contaminants, weed seeds) and if it passes muster, develop a plan to market it.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Over the next six months I will wrap up this project as outlined above. Based on my conversation with Ms. Miller of WSARE, I’ll gear the final report toward sharing lessons learned, highlighting both successes and the dead-ends I experienced along the way. I will communicate my outcomes to two audiences: beginning or potential shepherds looking at sustainable fiber businesses, and to fiber artists looking to better support sustainable small-scale fiber farms.
owner/operator of Prairie Shepherd
28593 Content Rd
Malta, MT 59538
Office Phone: 4066581141
MSA Phillips County Extension Agent
PO Box 430
Malta, MT 59538
Office Phone: 4066542543