In fall 2016, a grant from Rural Development along with support from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets made it possible to begin work to understand how wool - a natural and necessary resource that accompanies sheep farming - might become a revenue stream for Vermont sheep farmers.
An enthusiastic team with diverse interests and talents began an exploration in early 2017, with builders, architects, farmers, Extension colleagues, artists and others joining in to help envision ways that Vermont wool could be good for farmers and fill a market niche or two.
For many years and many sheep farmers, wool has become a cost rather than a revenue source since its market value is so low. The wool that meat-breeds of sheep produce doesn’t tend to be the softer kind that crafters want, and that means that even though the farmers have the necessary cost of shearing their animals, the wool either is sent to fetch a very low price through the “Wool Pool,” sits in the back of the barn collecting dust, or taken to the woods to be dumped. This coarser wool is great for animals in Vermont winters, because it helps the sheep tolerate the cold and damp. And the qualities that lead to it being coarse turn out to also lend it springiness, insulating properties (“R-value”) in line with recommended building codes, and the ability to absorb and then release moisture. All of these mean it has the potential to work very well for insulation, upholstery, rugs, wall-panels and other household products.
We’re excited about this work right now because a good market for wool could change the financial picture for sheep farming considerably. There are many places in Vermont where small ruminants like sheep and goats are better suited to the land than cows, and it makes sense for the region to help these farmers become or stay profitable through another revenue stream from the same animal that is also producing meat or milk for cheese.
Through a two-year period of meeting and talking that included an all-day “design thinking“ session led by Eugene Korsinsky of Dartmouth, the working group generated many ideas, and ultimately is looking most closely at three ways to use wool of different sorts:
For raw wool, the team has grown excited about pellets that can be used as soil conditioners. The qualities that make it a problem for more refined uses are desirable ones in the landscape - including the nutrients that are present in raw wool. One of the particularly interesting qualities of wool is its hygroscopic nature, meaning that it both absorbs and releases water, which can help in maintaining more consistent moisture for growing plants.
For clean, finer quality wool, upholstery for items ranging from home furniture to children’s car seats is noted to be a growing trend as many people seek alternatives to synthetic, petrochemical based fabrics for both health and environmental reasons.
For clean but uncarded wool, there are great uses for insulation when it is chopped or shredded. There is a local door manufacturer who is making high end wooden doors that are insulated with wool, making them locally sourced, beautiful and warm.
There are many more ideas generated in the group that are detailed in the report, along with analyses of market opportunities, processing and infrastructure needs, and much more. Take a look and let us know what you think.