Locally raised fibre targets premium markets

Predator protection and low-stress handling are key to achieving higher quality fibre

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Cleanliness and stress avoidance are important factors in meeting the demand for high quality wool and animal-based fibre products raised on Ontario farms.

Those points were made during a session led by two Napanee-area producers during the recent annual conference of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO).

Why it matters: The premium prices available on the locally raised fibre market can solidify a farm’s financial position.

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Two EFAO presenters told those in attendance that they have been able to move away from off-farm income sources to put greater emphasis on their fibre production.

Kate Michalska operates St. Isodore Farm near Yarker, raising Lincoln Longwool sheep, a breed that traces its roots back to first-century, Roman-occupied England. In recent times, it has joined a list of at-risk rare breeds both in the United Kingdom and Canada. Their wool is among the heaviest and highest-quality of all sheep.

Minimizing stress

Michalska said that stress during the sheep’s lives show up in the wool in the form of weakness of the fibre — similar to the way a narrowing of a tree’s growth rings can indicate severe weather or environmental circumstances. To minimize stress, her farm has moved to new fencing; away from single-strand electric to electric-mesh fencing. As well, St. Isodore Farm has brought in a guard llama to deter predators, and a portable shade structure to protect sheep from the elements.

“When I let them out of the barn, they head for that,” she said.

Beth Fisher of Stone Spindle Farm near Tamworth shares Michalska’s enthusiasm for the coyote-deterring qualities of llamas. A one-time sheep and mohair goat producer who now raises two varieties of alpaca, Fisher said llamas will bond with sheep or alpaca, unlike a donkey, which can be very standoffish to the animals it’s supposed to be guarding.

Plus, you can spin a llama’s fleece into yarn. Stone Spindle generally shears its Huacaya alpacas annually, its Suri alpacas every second year, and its guard llama whenever its hair gets too long.

Both women, meanwhile, had tales of dogs used for guarding which became overly protective of their human family, resulting in dangerous situations for other people visiting or even walking past the farm.

According to Fisher, alpacas are generally easy to handle and non-aggressive. Anyone new to the livestock species, though, will have to get accustomed to them loudly “arguing,” as she refers to it — something she and her neighbours had to do.

“They make a lot of noise, and a lot of different noises,” she said with a laugh, to the point there were times early on when it seemed to them as if physical abuse was involved. Alpacas also hum when they’re under stress, and issue a distinct alarm call if they see a predator.

Huacaya is the more common breed, with fibre similar to sheep wool in that it is a single strand with scales that holds its shape so it can be used for knitting. Suri fibre, meanwhile, hangs straight down and, under a microscope, has a double helix structure. It won’t hold its shape if knitted into a sweater. Spinners must treat it more like flax than wool.

Shearing, though, is a far different experience for alpaca farmers compared to sheep farmers. While a good proportion of sheep seem to enjoy or at least remain relatively calm for shearing, alpacas are far less appreciative of the process.

Stone Spindle uses a pivoting table to which they securely strap their animals for shearing. It begins vertical, the alpaca is brought beside it and strapped to it, and then it’s tilted sideways with the animal on top of it. Then the process is repeated for the opposite side of the animal.

They also give their alpacas lavender and the homeopathic remedy Arnica to try to calm them for shearing.

More acceptance for local, natural fibre

Fisher said when she first started spinning and selling fleeces and wool as a teenager in her native northern Alberta, she sometimes felt like a sideshow act.

Yarns were being brought in from Europe and people who used wool in their work wondered why they would bother buying Canadian product when it was more expensive, she said.

The change came when there was a separation in the perception of craft versus artisan, she said.

A director with Upper Canada Fibreshed, Fisher tends to spin her own high-end yarns because she knows the quality that is desired. But she sends other fleeces to mills for lower-end products because she knows she couldn’t keep up to demand for such products as socks or felted insoles.

A good-quality Lincoln Longwool raw fleece can bring up to $20 per pound. Michalska also sells a lot of coarse-spun yarn, a product that requires less time than a finer yarn.

Stone Spindle and St. Isodore Farms occasionally join forces by blending alpaca and sheep fibres for certain consumer products.

Fisher said there’s a variety of online opportunities for fibre product sales, but those hoping to sell it must have good photographs.

“Christmas bazaars, I avoid completely” because you can’t demand a high enough price. Juried art shows are great because there is often only one vendor with that type of product in the show.

Stone Spindle Farm does one farmers’ market and, for much of the year, it barely pays the gas money. “But, come fall, that’s when I make my sales,” Fisher said.

In order to successfully market fibre products, it’s critical to maintain clean fleeces. Potential buyers — of raw fleeces, further-processed knitting and weaving supplies, or finished products, don’t want to find dirt or manure, especially if they’re expected to pay a premium rate.

About the author

Contributor

Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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