When Ste. Anne sheep producer Solange Dusablon set out to earn farm income selling wool and wool products produced from their flock, she knew she’d need to charge top dollar for hand-spun, hand-knit knitwear to make any money – and that it was highly unlikely anyone would pay hundreds for a pretty sweater.
So she tried a different method – producing attractive and durable felt garments that appeal to men and women who live and work outdoors.
The approach proved both viable and profitable, enabling her to produce larger volumes of jackets, hats and vests to sell at affordable prices. Farmers, for example, love her jackets, hats and vests.
Dusablon and husband Randy Eros of Seine River Shepherds raise about 200 ewes on as many acres of land in southeastern Manitoba, direct marketing their woollen-wear line at the same time they sell market lambs.
They earn the same income from these combined wool and meat sales as they would raising a much larger flock strictly for meat – which they couldn’t do on their limited land base, says Eros.
“We knew if we wanted to make a living off our sheep flock, then we had to add value to our wool,” he said. “We add value to all of it.”
Dusablon and Eros, with their combined skill set in sheep production and fibre artistry, are something of a rarity among sheep producers in Manitoba, where most producers focus on meat production and have not tended to value wool.
The Manitoba Sheep Association is trying to change that.
On August 13 and 14 the association will host a fibre festival at Neepawa to not only bring together buyers of wool with those who already have it, but to encourage more sheep producers to start producing a higher-quality wool for new markets.
The Wild and Wooly Fibre Festival in Neepawa is part of the MSA’s Gathering of the Flock show and sale and will include displays of wool breed sheep, a wool competition, workshop, vendors, and a wool auction.
There’s even a “sheep-to-scarf” competition with teams competing to see who can take raw wool, pick, card, spin and knit it in the shortest time. Customers can buy wool and wool products from vendors and sheep producers can learn more about what those customers want.
If more start to see the merit of boosting both quality and quantity of higher-value wool, it could certainly increase overall returns to farmers, says Eros.
“If everyone was more careful with that, you could increase the return to producers by thousands and thousands of dollars over all the sheep that are shorn in this province.”
Sheep producers are, in fact, already eyeing the better prices paid for commodity wool shipped to the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers.
Prices now paid are up to 80 cents a pound making it now worth the cost and effort to ship.
“If you’re running 250 ewes and you get eight lbs. (of fleece) off each one, that’s 2,000 lbs. of wool,” said Eros. “At 80 cents a pound that’s $1,600 for a couple of days’ work. Even if you have to pay a shearer, you still have money in your pocket.”
The intent of the fibre festival is also to help wool growers link up with local markets made up of knitters and spinners.
Eros sees merit in that, but experience tells him that’s also limited market.
“The reality is that most people need one or two fleeces and that fills their closet,” he said. “It’s not really a big market.”
Yet big markets aren’t necessarily what everyone’s after at this point. Next weekend’s fibre festival will feature a number of very small-scale ventures producing smaller volumes of higher-value wool.
Avid knitter and sheep producer Diana Neuman is one of them – and happy at the size her business is at right now. She sells hand-knitted woollen products and wool produced off a flock of 72 she’s raising alongside her young son and daughter at McCreary.
She does all the work, shearing the fleece from their mix of commercial mixed breeds, a few Icelandics and Dorsets plus all the washing, carding and spinning.
“My husband has sometimes wondered if that pot on the stove is supper,” she jokes.
Admittedly “very, very busy” custom knitting mittens, hats and other accessories, Neuman says the scale of her enterprise is where she wants it.
“What I want is a small cottage industry,” she said. “I want something small scale that just helps fund something like a trip for the family in the summer.”
Likewise, Margaret Brook describes what she and fibre artist Linda Glowacki do as a micro-venture.
Brook and Glowacki struck up Cloverleaf Art and Fibre about five years ago. Glowacki raises a small flock of Shetland sheep on her farm near Cloverleaf, Manitoba while Brook spins and dyes the fleece to create product Glowacki then uses to create signature needle-felted wall hangings, purses and other accessories. Their productions are now sold at craft and artisan markets and farmers’ markets. Glowacki also teaches needle-felting classes.
Brook, who lives in Winnipeg, sees intense interest in local wool and wool products among her circles, not unlike the interest in local food, she adds. But wool is as hard to find as it is sought after. “The fibre festival will help to address that,” she said. “It will help make connections between people.”
For more information about the Wild and Wooly Fibre festival log on to the Manitoba Sheep Association’s website at www.mbsheep.ca or Facebook Wild and Wooly Fibre Festival.
“Weknewifwewanted tomakealivingoff oursheepflock,then wehadtoaddvalue toourwool.Weadd valuetoallofit.”
– RANDY EROS, SEINE RIVER SHEPHERDS AT STE. ANNE, MAN.