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Handspinner Wool Production in Paradise: Working With Nature's Limitations


Man’s best friend can be Jan Dean’s worst enemy on Hawaii’s Big Island.

The state has no natural predators to menace her smallholding sheep farm, but domestic dogs are a constant threat to her survival.

Jan’s flock of 19 Romney sheep at Maluhia Farm includes breeding ewes, a ram, a couple of wethers, market lambs and replacement ewes.

“Dogs are the biggest problem, although I’m more partial to saying, ‘dog owners’,” Jan says. “They don’t contain their dogs and refuse to believe their sweet little friend just murdered four sheep and ripped the udders off two more.

“The dog attack stories here are endless, grotesque and heartbreaking. Wild pigs are a potential threat to newborns, but dogs do terrible damage.”

A Start With Sheep In Hawaii

Jan began sheep farming on the mid-Pacific state’s island of Hawaii five years ago, starting with five St. Croix-Barbados crossbred hair sheep. She soon switched breeds and now has the only Romney flock in the islands.

She opted for Romneys because they are a dual breed, good for both meat and wool.

Checking out the ocean view: Maluhia Farm is within sight of the ocean, but at 1,300 feet elevation, has its own pleasant micro-climate.
Checking out the ocean view: Maluhia Farm is within sight of the ocean, but at 1,300 feet elevation, has its own pleasant micro-climate.

Jan and her husband John had moved back home to Hawaii after a five-year sojourn in Florida where she was the administrative director for a non-profit child care center and John was a yacht broker.

“We have the perfect relationship,” Jan says. “I break everything and he knows how to fix everything.”

Previously, John had a nine-acre macadamia nut farm on the Big Island and Jan was working in the executive offices at a luxury resort.

“My two sons owned the land and we worked out a family agreement that we would develop and care for it,” Jan says. “They retain land ownership and we own the development. This is a common arrangement in Hawaii.”

Jan opted for sheep farming because of the 12.25-acre size of the farm with about 10 acres dedicated to pasture.

“I had always been a knitter and had admired sheep in the area where I lived and raised my children,” she says. “I also wanted to learn to spin.”

She believes she is the only farmer in the state raising sheep for wool and processing it through to a finished product for market.

“Every step you go through in the processing changes something,” she says. “It’s a big fascination for me.”

The Romney flock came from JoAnn Slissman’s Wyammy Ranch, Sonoma County, Calif., and Jan says the decision to go with the Romney breed was a natural one.

“I found a fiber arts teacher who taught me to spin,” Jan says. “She had been raised with Romneys in western Oregon. We worked with Romney wool in the classes and she would teach me about the breed characteristics while we worked on our projects. I liked that they are a dual-purpose breed and their origination was in the wet marshlands of the British Isles.

Conditions

“We are at a 1,300-foot elevation, which is a different climate than sea level. A few miles up the road is a rain forest, yet another climate. The Big Island has ‘microclimates’ of all 13 climates on the globe with the exception of two—the most extreme arctic and tropical.”

Running a farm in the warm and wet weather means Jan has two major worries—flystrike and parasites.

“We have good shade areas around the pasture perimeters and the trade winds are generally reliable for keeping the high temperatures and humidity down,” she says.

Coming for breakfast: A small amount of morning treats condition the flock to come when called.
Coming for breakfast: A small amount of morning treats condition the flock to come when called.

“When we have wet weather followed by high humidity and no trade winds, we go onto red alert for fly-strike. I use a pyrethrum spray as a preventative on those days and keep the flock crotched. I also keep a sharp eye for behavior change.

“It also seems that the lambs born here are more resistant, but I’m not making any definite claims—yet.”

Long periods of rain, followed by sun, spike the parasite count.

“My microclimate provides lots of sunny days—our rains typically come at night,” Jan says.

On the upside, Hawaii has no exotic disease threats.

The farmland was used for commercial sugar cane production for many years. After the sugar cane companies closed, the land was sold and the property lay fallow for about 10 years. Then it had two pasture legumes planted on it and lay fallow for another five years.

Jan is not sure yet how many sheep the property can support.

“I thought I would cap out at 30, but the last two summers have been too dry, and we’ve sweated having enough pasture,” she says. “I suspect we’re pretty close. I also have a mother cow and a calf to pasture.”

Direct Markets

Jan has reached the stage in her business development where she can look to sell some of her lamb crop to slaughter.

“I do ‘freezer train’ those that are not useful for my breeding program,” she says. “Since I am still in start-up mode we just did our first slaughter this year. I will probably take four of this year’s lamb crop to market after the first of the year.”

She already has a loyal customer base for her lamb.

“Like most Big Island sheep producers, I am a very small outfit, and we have our personal customers,” Jan says. “The producers try to help each other out with finding product for our customers when we’re out.”

The supermarkets and restaurants in Hawaii want a consistent supply, which only the biggest ranches can provide.

“The rest of us develop our own markets,” Jan says. “My customers tend to whine when there isn’t enough of my product. I try to keep them happy and have offered them samples of other cuts to try.”

The meat is not certified organic.

“We subscribe to the practices of free range, fresh water, gentle handling, minimal routine health care and lambing in the pasture during the spring,” Jan says. “Our pasture has been chemical free for the past 15 years.”

Importing Romney Sheep

Getting live sheep to Hawaii is not easy.

“First, the logistics of transportation are very problematic and getting more expensive by the minute, with fuel costs skyrocketing,” Jan says. “The real challenge is with the change of feed—tropical grasses have a higher water content and are lower in protein.

“Our grass is green year-round, so we don’t get the heavy spring protein flush during lambing season. I’ve known a number of producers that have brought in breeding rams at great cost and lost them.”

Still, Jan’s flock has been boosted by the addition of Australian and New Zealand Romney genetics brought in from the American mainland.

“I was able to get to the Black Sheep Gathering in Eugene, Oregon, before I purchased my original flock and then again in the summer of 2007,” she says.

It was there she met Kristen Holbo of Iron Water Ranch, Albany, Oregon.

“She was well regarded by the Romney producers that had been recommended to me, and mostly I liked her wool,” Jan says. “She is well informed, experienced and had been to Hawaii, so she had first-hand knowledge of island sheep conditions.”

Holbo has been importing Australian and New Zealand semen material for several years and doing her own AI.

“This past summer I visited her place and picked out a ram lamb from eight that she had chosen from her flock,” Jan says. “I finally picked out one her kids called ‘Tank’ because of his sturdy build and his fleece, which was what I was looking for. Kristen put him on a plane in Portland. I met him in Honolulu and put him on a cargo plane to the Big Island. He’s doing fine.”

Jan's beautiful hand-wrought, hand-dyed yarns sell readily at $9 to $12 per ounce ($144 to $192 per pound). Maluhia Farm's Romney sheep yield 8 to 13 lbs. of raw fleece annually.
Jan’s beautiful hand-wrought, hand-dyed yarns sell readily at $9 to $12 per ounce ($144 to $192 per pound). Maluhia Farm’s Romney sheep yield 8 to 13 lbs. of raw fleece annually.

Jan says show genetics are of no interest to her—meat production and wool quality is what she’s looking for.

“I have sold breed stock to the island’s largest sheep ranch and they didn’t want any registration papers,” she says. “They like the Romney build for their meat stock. They do commodity wool, but the wool quality is my main interest. Island standards are very practical.”

The biggest sheep operation in Hawaii is the 8,500-acre Kahua Ranch on the north side of the island. Kahua is home to 3,300 dairy cattle and a 900-head merino-based sheep flock with Romney, Corriedale, and Dorset influence.

“Mostly you see small flocks on the small acreage in the countryside,” Jan says. “Large production is not island-style for most people. The state and our island particularly is becoming very aware of our food security issues, should we be cut off from our imported food sources.

“We’re getting serious about self-sufficiency.”

Taking Care Of Business

Jan feeds her flock a small amount of treats (alfalfa pellets, sweet feed and mineral salt) in the morning.

“This is primarily to train them to come to the barn in response to calling them and banging on the feed bucket—but 99% of the time, they’re waiting for breakfast at the gate,” she says. “Then, when it’s time to provide treatments (hoof trimming, etc.), it’s no problem bringing them in. We have a farmhand living in the little cottage on the farm, and she helps with treatments, lambing, etc.”

Farm tours so far have been limited to small groups of schoolchildren, usually from small private schools.

“I’m skeptical at this point of doing eco-tourism, because it’s time costly,” Jan says.

Apart from wool and sheep meat, Jan has another farm revenue stream from eggs produced by an unknown number of chickens.

“They run all over the place, so we always lose count,” Jan says.

“The chickens may ‘save the farm.’ I sell eggs at the weekly Waimea Hawaiian Homestead Farmers’ Market along with my wool and wool products. Invariably the eggs go first. The daily life money comes from my home-office business. I provide medical insurance billing and bookkeeping services.”

The chickens dine on the usual bugs and worms and Jan says this helps quite a bit with keeping the parasite count down for the sheep.

Plans for the future development of the farm include continuing to put money into fencing, so she can further refine her rotational grazing system. A mobile electric fence defines the grazing area.

Jan plans to keep working on her wool processing skills and to develop markets for her wool and wool products.

Island Challenges

For those who think sheep farming in paradise is a breeze, Jan has a cautionary tale.

“There are conditions and problems that are unique in Hawaii with its location so far from the mainland,” she says.

“There is only one slaughterhouse on the island that accepts sheep and is USDA approved. Genetic pools tend to get mixed very quickly and new genetics are expensive.

“Markets are limited and shipping off to the Honolulu market on Oahu is expensive.

“You can count the number of livestock vets, all practicing in the same town, on one hand and we’re desperate for livestock vets that know semi-tropical problems.

“Small production is expensive in terms of supplemental feeds, health treatments and supplies. Feed is outrageous, if you have to supplement. A 75-pound alfalfa bale is $32 and the shipping cost is the killer. Feed, supplies and service costs remain high from little competition.”

There is also a limited ability to quickly increase or decrease flocks.

“Depending on rains and pasture quality, if you need to quickly decrease your flock, no one else is buying. If pastures are lush, no one wants to sell.”

Hawaiian lamb producers face meat market competition from mainland shippers. Big chain supermarkets and discount stores bring in shipping containers of meat at discount prices.

“The general consumer compares a hand-crafted farm product with the sale price at their supermarket and refuses to pay even farm-direct prices,” Jan says. “Some consumers don’t have buying power to pay local-production prices.”

Distances are great and fuel costs exorbitant.

“A sheep producer may have to transport 90 miles to the slaughterhouse,” Jan says. “Hawaii is typically among the highest in the nation for gas prices, spiking at $4.25 a gallon in the early fall. Getting to a vet, market or meeting is time costly, too.”

Husbandry & Commerce

Jan’s sheep are shorn in the late spring when the weather usually settles into a drier, hotter pattern. They produce a fiber of five to seven inches in length, compared to the mainland where the fiber can get up to 10 to 12 inches.

A ram can produce a fleece of 13 pounds, ewes about eight pounds and lambs a couple of pounds.

The wool is sorted into three grades—”top,” the best part of the fleece, “secondary” and “discard”, which goes into the compost or mulch pile.

Jan says cleaning the wool is an evolving experiment.

“Currently, we use filtered Hawaiian rain water for soaking, allowing the natural suint (the natural secretion formed from dried perspiration in the wool) to loosen dirt and vegetable matter.

Always improving her wool working skills, Jan Dean continues to develop a loyal fiber crafts following on the Islands.
Always improving her wool working skills, Jan Dean continues to develop a loyal fiber crafts following on the Islands.

“The wool then goes through a repetitive soaking, sun and air-drying process, in which our pure rain water turns into a vile, foul looking and smelling liquid.

“Amazingly, the wool comes very clean. A gentle organic shampoo wash followed by a final sun/air drying finalizes the cleaning process. The wool is now soft and smelling vaguely of wool and clean pastures. It is ready to be picked, carded or French combed. Spinning and dyeing are next.”

Romney wool is prized by hand spinners, weavers and felters for its staple, crimp and excellent behavior during these processes. For scarves and next-to-body items, it spins well when combined with softer, fussier yarns by contributing its long staple for stability and spinning ease.

Jan has also learned to dye her wool, using a steaming process in the microwave.

“Dyeing is way too much fun,” she says. “It’s very exciting, and my colored wool has sold well.”

Trading as the Hawaiian Homegrown Wool Co., she sells a wide selection of woolen clothes, ornaments and toys, priced from $12 to $45 each. Her list of customers commissioning one-of-a-kind designs and custom-fit garments is growing rapidly.

There’s also raw or washed fleece, cleaned and carded wool that’s ready to spin, or wool that has been spun into thread. Her hand-spun wool sells for $9 to $12 an ounce.

“I want to build a business out of this,” Jan says. “There are spinners and weavers on this island and in Honolulu, but it’s a small population of them. It’s a highly specific market.”





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