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Wool Is at the Center of Product Innovation

by Kim MacMillan

Published: Friday, June 4, 2021

When someone hears wool mentioned they may think of blankets, suits, coats, rugs, socks, scarves and shawls. But some innovative U.S. sheep producers have developed new wool products for use in the home and garden that are ecofriendly and effective. The Farmer's Exchange chatted with two U.S. farmers about new and traditional uses for their wool: Sandra and Mike Morris of Mitten State Sheep and Wool in Coldwater, Mich., and Albert Wilde of Wild Valley Farms, Croydon, Utah.

Among the products offered by Mitten State are wool dryer balls, wool roving, dyed wool, wool locks, wool batting for making comforters, washed fleeces, and wool felt sheets. Wild Valley Farms markets wool products for use in the garden. Their website lists wool pellets, wool pellet-enriched garden soil, wool plant covers, wool pots, and a super compost tea which contains "wool dust."

These two farms are among a growing cottage industry of U.S. sheep farmers and ranchers, both large and small, who are merchandising their wares online, through on-farm storefronts and partnering with bigger retailers to help sell their products. A quick Internet search also found other American-produced sheep and wool products for home use including sheep's milk soap, wool-stuffed adjustable pillows, wool stuffing for pillow making, a stain-remover stick made of felted wool impregnated with all-natural soap, and wool dusters for house cleaning.

The Morris family has a small farm in southern Michigan near Coldwater. They have been raising sheep since they moved to the farm 23 years ago and have tried a number of breeds but currently raise Border Leicester, Tunis, Bluefaced Leicester, Romney, Corriedale and some fiber crosses.

"We try to have a little bit of variety as wools can be very different from each breed. We have always been interested in the wool aspect of raising sheep, which is why we started a small farm woolen mill to process our own fleeces. It was quite an undertaking, but it was well worth it. I love being able to take the raw fleeces and transform them into wool products," shared Sandra Morris.

Morris explained that their wool dryer balls are their most popular product and that the make them from 100 percent wool which is washed, carded and spun on their farm. Since they raise both white and colored-wool sheep, their dryer balls come in several natural shades (no dyes are used to make them). Benefits of using them instead of fabric softener in the washer or fabric-softener dryer sheets include the fact that wool is highly absorbent and therefore soaks up moisture from the drying clothes. This speeds up the drying process and reduces the time the dryer has to run, thus reducing energy costs and the time spent in doing laundry.

The wool balls also reduce static cling and are less toxic to the environment. Compounds in commercial fabric softener can be toxic to pets, contaminate ground water and cause clothes to retain waxy substances that make them less moisture wicking and more flammable, among other downsides. Wool balls usually last a year or more, too, so they save money by not having to purchase multiple boxes of fabric softener sheets or fabric softener bottles per year.

Morris said they have about 60 sheep on their farm and also buy wool from other local producers. Most of their customers are felters, hand spinners and crafters. Mitten State is also launching crafting-with-wool classes this year and they diversify by offering custom processing of wool fleece in their mill and clipper blade sharpening as well.

She and her husband write about their farm and post to social media in hopes of educating the public and inspiring others. Among the topics Morris has blogged about are dying wool using black walnuts and other natural dyes, and making wool felt acorn decorations.

"One of our goals is to try to share our experiences raising sheep and working with wool. There are many misconceptions about farming and sharing our stories, and glimpses of the day-to-day, can help dispel those."

Albert Wilde is a sixth-generation sheep rancher. He and his wife and sons manage over 2,600 Rambouillet-Columbia-cross sheep and 200 cattle on their Wild Valley Farms in the northern mountains of Utah. They raise sheep for their wool and meat qualities. In addition to marketing lamb, beef, wool for clothing and wool gardening products, they sell mulch and compost. Wild Valley Farms was a Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge top-four finalist and won a Green Business Award in 2017.

Wilde shared the genesis of the wool garden products that his farm sells.

"In 2014 my wife asked me if I could do something about helping her so she didn't have to water her plants so much. I knew wool held water and we had plenty of waste wool around the barn, so I added some of that wool to the soil around her plants. She was surprised at what I had done and told me she was thinking about a drip irrigation system, not wool. However, after going on vacation that summer for seven days and coming home to beautiful plants that weren't wilted, she said, 'You've got something that every gardener will want.'"

They started producing and selling wool pellets in late 2016. Once the sheep is sheared, the main fleece from the sheep is sold to make clothes. Then the belly wool and "tags" wool from the back end of the sheep are used to make the wool pellets. With the help of a friend, now partner, they figured out how to pelletize the wool so that it was easier to use. With the help of another friend they started trials using wool pellets in greenhouse production and there saw multiple benefits including reduced watering needs by at least 25 percent and enhanced plant growth. And, in the same trials they learned that even though the wool pellets held water, they also expanded creating oxygen space for the roots of the plants.

"Then we took the wool pellets to Utah State University for an independent study which confirmed and expanded on the benefits of using wool pellets as a fertilizer. The University of Vermont has also shown the benefits of using wool pellets in row crops, in being able to harvest earlier and protecting waterways," cited Wilde.

He explained that a wool pellet will hold up to 20 percent of its weight in water. Because of this, the wool soil amendments that they have developed reduce how often potted plants and gardens need to be watered. And, since wool has moisture-wicking properties, the pellets also help reduce plant damage from overwatering too.

Wool is high in nitrogen, so the wool pellets are a natural 9-0-2 (nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium) slow-release fertilizer. Some research suggests that wool is a natural snail and slug repellant, so mixing the wool pellets into the soil and placing around plants can help reduce damage from these slimy crawlers. And, since wool expands when wet, it will also help maintain soil porosity to promote optimal root growth and reduces the need for additives like Perlite.

In 2018, Wild Valley also started making wool plant pots and plant protective covers to use in cold weather. They purchase waste wool material from textile manufacturers and recycle that into pots and covers. The pots are the only decorative plant containers on the market which allow for air pruning and are 100 percent biodegradable.

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