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RSDP Happenings - Focus: Minnesota Wool Projects

Summer 2017

By Elizabeth Braatz

Photo by Jean Mueller.

It’s nearly the peak of summer, but Minnesotans always keep in mind that our winters are cold. While the pastures are green, we can think ahead to warming up with fluffy, cozy wool blankets or hats made from locally raised sheep. One of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships’ (RSDP) primary functions is to drive sustainability through resilient communities, and supporting local sheep farmers is good for local businesses, good for farming communities, and of course good for those cold winter nights.

RSDP New Crop Market Integration Specialist Connie Carlson has been busy connecting key people in the wool industry supply chain across the state from north to south. Carlson has a strong background in food systems. She serves as the chair of a regional food council and as President of the Crow River Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association (SFA).

“The wool conversation is very exciting,” Carlson said. “We are rebuilding and re-learning the value of sheep and wool on the landscape.”

Photo by Jean Mueller.

Two key players with whom Carlson has been working closely are Alethea Kenney of SFA’s Sustainable Sheep networking group and Natural Fiber Alliance’s Jean Mueller.

In the North: Sustainable production for Ewe and Me

Alethea Kenney is a sheep farmer and champion of promoting sustainable sheep on the landscape. Kenney works from the producer perspective, using her experience in veterinary settings and background in science to develop healthy flocks.

Kenney explained, “I’ve raised farm animals for 20 years. In Minnesota I noticed that a lot of producers I talked to sold fleeces on the commodity market … at rock bottom prices. I thought, we can do better. As a hand spinner and fiber artist myself, I wanted to find more options for local people.”

After attending a Northern Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers event, Kenney decided to add new perspectives to the conversation. She applied for and received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) mini-grant to make changes at a new event the next year, including inviting many guest speakers. Over a hundred people attended, and the event was a huge success. “Fiber artists didn’t realize wool producers were creating such great fiber… and the fiber producers didn't know that artisans would pay for that,” Kenney explained.

University of Minnesota Professor Hikaru Peterson, Applied Economics, has conducted research on fiber markets and offered assistance to graduate student Austin Yang on a study supported by RSDP.

Kenney then reached out to Northwest RSDP Executive Director Linda Kingery, who worked closely with her to build on attendees’ initial interest. Thanks to help from Northwest RSDP, the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, and SFA, Kenney established the Fosston Fiber Festival. Since then, the festival has bloomed into a nonprofit organization: the Sustainable Sheep and Fiber Community of Northern Minnesota (SSFC). SSFC connects local producers to fiber artists.

There are many exciting things going on in the wool world, and in the future Kenney hopes to lead these groups in more outreach activities, including the Sustainable Sheep Event in February, the 4-H Fiber Fun Day with various county Extension offices, the Fosston Fiber Festival, and shepherding workshops.

In the South: Celebrating Ewe-nique MN wool

Jean Mueller is a lifelong sheep farmer, founder of the Natural Fiber Alliance (visit also on Facebook), and lead organizer of the Annual Wool Conference. Mueller was recently awarded the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) endowed chair position, and she has big plans to use this opportunity to build a pilot program for local wool farmers.

Karen Stormo talks about her farm and products at the Small Scale Sustainable Sheep Event in February 2017 in Fosston, Minnesota.

Mueller has long been interested in sheep-raising and weaving art. Around 2000, Mueller noticed that there wasn’t much fiber wool production in the Southeast area, so she began giving a fiber farm tour. “That experience was really what brought me to [where I am] today,” she said. “The tour showed me that people were very interested in the fiber and farming aspect and the sheep themselves.”

Mueller was able to expand these fiber farm tours thanks to support from RSDP. Later, Mueller worked with Applied Economics graduate student Austin Yang (with support from RSDP’s Mary J. Page Community-University Partnerships Fund and the CURA-CAP program) to study the local commercial wool market. Based on this study, Mueller and many others are hoping to put more Minnesota-based woolen products on the shelves.

“My goal is to open up the market more. I want to sell wool in a way that’s more profitable for producers and more accessible for consumers. This local, high-quality wool—it’s a great product. It’s a new adventure,” Mueller said.

In the words of University of Minnesota Applied Economics Professor Hikaru Peterson, the Natural Fiber Alliance aims to “grasp the opportunity to redevelop the Midwest wool industry, while taking advantage of the recent ‘buy local’ [movement] that is the national trend.”

Supplier sustainability is an important part of this, Mueller said. “The farms we are looking at are large, but they take care of their animals and the soil. We want to make sure that the wool is beneficial to the earth, raised with soil conservation health in mind.”

Sheep shearer Byron Johnson demonstrates shearing at the 4-H Fiber Fun Day at Northern Woolen Mills in May 2016.

Throughout the state: Bringing everyone into the fold

From producers to retailers, working together has been beneficial for everyone. According to Kenney, “[RSDP] has been so great about backing us. Linda [Kingery] bent over backwards to help rewrite [grants and] work with food growers [and other partners]. Connie Carlson has been great about providing contacts and information. She’s been really passionate about making this work out. It has been really wonderful working with RSDP.”

Similarly, Mueller found the partnership invaluable. “Molly Zins, David Fluegel, Connie Carlson, Kathryn Draeger, and Erin Meier have been absolutely wonderful,” she said. “It’s been immeasurable how much they’ve helped. For myself and those closely involved, we are all learning as we are going. To have that support and belief that this is a good thing is invaluable.”

For Carlson, who described herself as a relative newcomer to the wool discussion, working with wool networks has been a rewarding part of her work to develop supply chains for local products. “Working with this group has been a joy,” she said. “They’ve been constantly professional, incredible resources.”

Working with local suppliers, developers, farmers, and RSDP is helping Mueller and Kenney reinvent a wool industry for Minnesota. The next time you’re bundling up for the cold Minnesota winter, consider using warm wool from local Minnesotans. It’s good for the sheep, good for the farmers, and good for your cold fingers!

Elizabeth Braatz graduated in spring 2017 from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) with a degree in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management. She worked with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant during her junior and senior years.

RSDP connects communities with the resources of the University of Minnesota to drive sustainability in Greater Minnesota, and is part of University of Minnesota Extension.
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