Lindstrom, Minn. – Every spring, Sherry Stirling blankets her gardens and small vineyard in soft wool.
Stirling and her husband Warner Johnson raise Merino-Dorset-cross sheep. She lays sheared wool in her gardens and around her trees, shrubs and grape vines as a mulch to control weeds, retain moisture and enrich the soil.
Lots of sheep producers use the same trick, says Stirling, secretary of the Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers Association. In fact, that’s what led the grower group to develop a wool landscaping fabric several years ago. The product performed well in research trials at the University of Minnesota, but it was too expensive for the intended market – commercial fruit and vegetable growers. The association went on to develop a cheaper wool mulch, which is now being tested. (see story on page 4, “Mulch makeover.”)
But the group hasn’t abandoned interest in the original wool mulch, which is made with a process called needle punching. Stirling and other Minnesota sheep producers believe the needle-punch wool mat could be successfully sold as landscaping fabric for home gardeners.
The sturdy wool fabric has many advantages for yards and gardens, Stirling says: It’s an effective weed barrier, biodegradable, and easy to cut and install. “It would be a locally-produced, chemical-free alternative to plastic mulch.” And because home gardeners don’t need huge volumes of mulch, “price is not as large a barrier,” says Bob Padula, a Montevideo sheep producer and American Wool Council consultant. “It’s a niche market,” Stirling says, “but consumers are looking for something like this.”
A successful wool mulch would offer Minnesota producers another outlet for their low-value belly and tag wool, which is worth only pennies a pound in today’s markets. But first, Stirling and Padula say, the Minnesota sheep industry needs an efficient way to collect and transport low-grade wool.
Now, most Minnesota wool moves through sheep shearers to warehouses, which distribute it to processors. Separating out the low-grade fiber from the higher-quality fleece wool could boost the prices growers receive for their good wool, Padula says. But collection costs would also jump. There are about 2,500 sheep farmers in Minnesota – most of them small producers. “When you have small volumes scattered over a large area, it’s expensive to collect,” Padula says.
On the other hand, he adds, Minnesota does have a wool processing industry to build on, including one of only four commercial scouring facilities in the country. “Minnesota is a logical place to do this work, as we currently have a wool textile base. Many states do not have this.”
The biggest hurdle for Minnesota growers now is “collecting the wool from producers and getting it to a mill that can do the processing,” Stirling says. “We’ve been looking to AURI for help.” One idea being talked about is forming a wool cooperative to collect and pool low-value fiber, Padula says. “That’s the next step for growers.”
But, Stirling says: “We haven’t figured out how to make it work, yet. We’re still very much at the experimental stage.”