Sheep Farmers Struggle To Find Fiber Markets

04/14/10 7:50AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) A million and a half sheep once grazed Vermont's hills. The industry died as farming in the west opened up.  But it made a comeback on a smaller scale with the back-to-the land movement in the 1960s.

Sheep production has been holding steady in the state since then. But markets for wool have not.

VPR's Susan Keese reports on one effort to solve the problem.

(Sound from shearing)

(Keese) In a barn in Grafton, Chet Parsons is leading a sheep-shearing workshop. Parsons is a sheep specialist for the UVM Extension Service.

He says a couple hundred Vermonters are raising sheep, mostly in small flocks. He estimates there are about 15,000 sheep statewide.

All but a few breeds require shearing each year.

(Parsons) "Unfortunately there's not a very good market for wool ... too much polyester."

(Keese) Parsons says producers used to pool their wool each fall to sell.

(Parsons) "A buyer would come to the state and everybody would bring in their wool, weigh it, and the buyer would send out a check. But that hasn't happened for the last 15 years."

(Keese) Now most of New England's big woolen mills have gone under or moved offshore, and many farmers can't get rid of their wool.

A huge bag of wool sits in a corner of the barn. Parsons says it's still there from his shearing workshop last year.

He says the challenge for sheep raisers now is to build new markets among the many people who are using wool, or could be.

(Sound of sheep)

(Keese) A few miles away in Westminster West, David Major of Vermont Shepherd Farm is trying to meet that challenge. He had more than 5,000 pounds of wool in his barn, when he opened his farm for a free wool giveaway.

Vermont Shepherd Farm is best known for its prize-winning cheeses. But Major says wool has always been part of his family's economic picture.

(Major) "When I was a kid we sold the wool for about a dollar... a pound. And then there was a government subsidy, since the government wanted to keep the wool industry alive in this country for the military."

(Keese) But those days are gone. And while Major sells some wool to hand spinners and a specialty processor in Putney, it's not enough.

 (Major) "And part of it was, ‘Let's just open it up to the community and see what kind of creative ideas come out of it, because maybe a little industry will develop out of it.'"

(Sound of dulcimer music)

(Customer) "Is this the free wool?"

(Helper) "This is the free wool. There are bales here."

(Customer) "Woo-hoo! Go Phoebe."

(Keese) On the day of the giveaway, hundreds of people turned out from around the region and beyond, to stuff 30 gallon bags with soft, pungent fleece. The wool filled three stalls to the rafters of Major's big red barn 

(Woman)" I'm going to make pillows. And I might even make a mattress if I get another bagful."

(Man) "We use it on garden paths, for example, in the summer, for mulching. And best yet, your feet are getting a great treatment with that lanolin."

(Woman) "I want to roughly finish it and use it in my weaving, sort of like when making a rug."

(Keese) Judy Jacobetz from Troy, New Hampshire, says there's been an explosion of interest in hand spinning and fiber-arts.

(Jacobetz) "To make something from raw fibers into a sweater or scarf... it's very satisfying. In the last 10  years it's gotten much more popular"

(Teacher) "And slide that up."

(Woman) "Oh it's amazing. It just does it on its own."

(Keese) Craftspeople demonstrated how to clean and card and spin and dye. There were lessons in felting, a process of matting wool for moccasins and toys.

Major says he developed on customers for his wool.

(Major) "There was just a woman who was talking to me she was associated with the Green Builders of the Northeast or something like that. They want to make wool insulation. "

(Keese) Representatives from at least two artisanal woolen mills were there, and even a natural clothing designer from Boston.

Whatever comes of it, Major says the day left him certain that there is a demand for his wool. He says every ounce was given away.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese.


sheep arts business

Related Links

Vermont Sheep and Goat Association
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