Mountain Meadow Wool Mill, in Buffalo, Wyoming, is a fairly recent addition to a number of excellent woolen mills that custom process fleeces for shepherds interested in selling their finished wool products directly to customers.
Valerie Spanos and Karen Hostetler founded the company in late 2007 after a number of years of buying raw wool from Wyoming ranchers for use in yarn and other finished fiber products. The two women have the long-range goal of helping to preserve the ranching and rural way of life in the state. That they would choose sheep as a focal point for this mission makes good sense. Wyoming is the third largest producer of sheep in the United States and the history of lamb and wool production runs deep.
After logging many miles, visiting a lot of mills, and looking at a lot of used equipment the two women processed their first batch of custom processed wool in early 2008.
A Mountain Meadows’ product display: They know what growers need, because they too sell their own yarns in retail wool craft outlets all across America.
Versatility & Assistance
“We can do a staple of up to six inches,” Valerie said. “We have a carder that we can adapt to different breeds and lengths. We are learning a lot about different breeds. So far we have not found a breed we can’t handle. We also process alpaca and llama and we can blend fibers.”
Mountain Meadow can handle the long fibers that some mills can’t, but like most mills, they can’t do much with really short fibers.
“The best quality yarns are made from fleece and fibers that are clean and free of chaff, burrs, tags. They should average at least three inches of staple length and be free of short belly wool and second cuts,” Karen said.
Although the majority of their customers are from west of the Mississippi, Karen and Valerie have custom processing customers from as far east as Pennsylvania. Although some of these customers have experience with having their wool turned into batts, roving, or yarn, they enjoy receiving calls from the many people who are new to the idea. The two women have as primary goal to help both their experienced and new customers succeed.
“We start off by asking some simple questions when people call,” Valerie said. “We ask them things like how much wool they have, what their expectations are, what breed they have, and is the wool they have going to be for themselves or are they going to resell it?”
Sometimes woolgrowers’ particular breeds of sheep produce wool that is unsuitable for the expected projects they intend to use it in. If the breed doesn’t match the processing possibilities for its specific type of wool Valerie and Karen are glad to guide the flock entrepreneur toward better ways to use the fiber.
“Every type of wool has its uses,” Karen says. “So for example, if you have a coarse wool breed we can give you some ideas how to best use it and how not to use it. We want our customers to be happy, and if somebody is going to buy their wool we want those customers to be happy, too.”
Scoured, carded roving is drafted into slivers and spun into yarn neatly and cleanly in orders as small as 10 lbs., using environmentally friendly, citrus based detergents and non-petroleum spinning oils.
Revealing “Insider” Secrets To Growers That Boost Profits
Mountain Meadow Wool is glad to take the role of consultant a step further. Since they want their customers to succeed, they are willing to share what they are observing going on in the overall market at the time of processing. And since they market their own products, they are always alert to market trends.
For example, “After attending a trade show in California last year, we came away with a sense that there is going to continue to be a growing demand for items from people who sell their flock’s wool as a finished product,” Valerie said.
The two women said there is a rising trend toward on-line stores. There is also a growing interest in maintaining the identity of the farm or ranch where yarn or wool products originate.
The public appears to be interested in taking that a step further, even going so far as to preserve the identity of a particular animal that a product came from, they said.
Raw fleece marketers have had success with this approach in the past. A product with a name and a story attached to it has more customer magnetism, more intrinsic value in some settings and circumstances than a generic, nameless product.
To preserve a fleece so it can be turned into a top-quality finished product worthy of a name and story Valerie and Karen encourage shepherds who are new to custom processing to give them a call in advance of shearing.
“If you give us a heads-up six months in advance we can help you make some plans and give some management and shearing tips,” Karen said.
Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi (left) learns about production and processing methods at the mill from rancher Peter John Camino (center), and plant manager Gary Senier (right).
Wool Husbandry Hints
One basic management tip is to jacket your sheep or at least not throw hay on them while feeding them. Shearing tips a newcomer might receive begin with important but oft-neglected practices like keeping the shearing area clean and free of hay and other vegetable matter.
“We base all our prices on weight so when a customer sends us a fleece that is heavily contaminated it costs them more per pound of finished product than if they had a clean fleece,” Valerie said. “The average custom process return is 55 pounds of finished yarn per 100 pounds of raw fleece. That return percentage is certainly affected by the grease content and cleanliness of the clip.”
Pack wool in clear heavy-weight plastic bags or cardboard boxes, not woven plastic feed bags, whose fibers invariably contaminate the wool. Don’t keep it too long before processing, or grease and dirt gets harder to remove, permanently staining the wool. Suffer no wool moths to livedispose of wool that has become infested with them.
Have enough help on hand to make sure all wool stays clean and neat as the fleeces, bellies and dung tags pile up. Sweep the board after each sheep. Don’t shear or put away wool wetit can mold.
Most growers know “skirting” means removal of dung tags, muddy wool, matted wool, hairy or kempy fibers, second cuts, paint and urine-stained wool. But some still just ship it all “as is,” just to “be done with it.”
Customers are welcome to ask Mountain Meadow Wool to skirt the woolfor $7 for each pound of fleece that needs skirting.
“Nobody has ever taken us up on that,” Valerie half-whispered. “We really don’t want to skirt fleeces!”
Most of the Mountain Meadow crew; Karen and Valerie at left and right.
Sending clean and well-skirted fleeces will save a shepherd shipping costs. There is no point in paying by the pound to ship dirtor even to ship short fibers that can’t be used. Skirting one’s own fleeces affords good mulch material for the grower, but at the mill it’s just another waste product whose disposal cost must be passed on to the customer. In addition, proper skirting before packing will result in cleaner, higher quality wool that will fetch higher prices.
Mountain Meadow Wool also gives independent flock entrepreneurs who desire to identify with high-priced “green-friendly” markets some additional buzz to attach to their yarn, batt, or roving.
“We are working with a citrus-based detergent for scouring and non-petroleum based spinning oils,” Valerie said.
The company is also experimenting with environmentally-conscious handling of wastewater. This is only natural for them, because water has always been a precious commodity in short supply in Wyoming.
“We are working on a treatment system for the wastewater with assistance of USDA,” Karen said. “We want to recycle the water and we’re even looking at ways to extract and use the methane from the sludge. We also would like to compost the sludge and use it in a greenhouse.”
Readers can find more about Mountain Meadows services, prices, and products at the company’s web site: www.MountainMeadowWool.com or by calling 307-684-5775