Developing Organic Wool
Developing Organic Wool

Developing Organic Wool

by Susan W. Clark

Although organic food is becoming common, organic wool is a product in its’ infancy. Markets are small, there are few processing facilities, and regulations haven’t been agreed on. What wool is being produced is coming from meat flocks, not wool breeds. Without regulations, when products are marketed as “Organic Wool” the label means far less than the consumer might assume.

Wool Market Trends

According to the USDA, the number of US sheep shorn dropped 46% during the decade of the nineties; the price for wool fell from $.80 to $.38 per pound, and the 1999 US wool crop was 53% of 1990’s.

This is a bleak market for all wool producers to face; nevertheless, there is an organic wool movement underway. An Organic Trade Association (OTA) survey revealed that ten states in the US produced 28,510 pounds of certified organic wool in 2001. New Mexico produced almost half of the total, while Oregon produced 2,000 pounds.

To understand the organic wool business, it is essential to understand that the term ‘organic wool’ embraces two worlds: that of raising sheep organically, and that of processing the fiber into yarn, clothing, or other products.

Organic Wool – The Sheep

The Taos Center for Southwest Wool Traditions in New Mexico is a nonprofit educational center for sustainable agriculture focused on traditional wool production. Describing the issue of breed selection, founder Robin Collier said, “There are few flocks that are certified organic and those are not wool breeds. Breeders certify the meat and the wool is a secondary product. Many of the wool breeds aren’t great for meat.”

Paul and Vicki Wares own the Double Diamond Ranch in Baker City, Oregon. They are the only organic wool producers certified by Oregon Tilth. Paul explained their flock, “Meat has always been more important income-wise than wool. Our flock is very mixed. We select for good meat characteristics and this results in an inconsistent and fairly low-grade clip (wool).”

Another challenge is animal health, particularly life threatening parasites. Wares said, “The biggest problem in most areas is probably internal worm parasites. It’s usually less of a problem in our dry climate, but with a wet fall in 2004 and a wet spring we were hit hard.”

Parasites, including nematodes (roundworm) and liver flukes (Fasciola hepatica) are hard to control organically. According to Dr. Joe Snyder, a veterinarian and Oregon Tilth Board member, “One parasitologist showed a picture of a cow footprint filled with rain water and said that was ideal habitat for the snail (an intermediate host to liver flukes). In our climate, it is hard to eliminate such habitats.”

But he continued, “In my experience, nematode gastrointestinal parasites are more of a limiting factor in sheep production than flukes. There are no alternative treatments with any efficacy of which I am aware. I really believe that diversity of species and/or integration with crop production will be necessary to have an organic sheep and goat market in this part of the world.”

Establishing a viable organic wool industry will require overcoming at least three major challenges. As with any new market, ranchers will have to develop an income strategy to support them while the market is small and uncertain; they will need to build flocks selected primarily for producing quality fiber; and producers will have to overcome parasite problems if that is an issue in their climate.

Developing Organic Wool

Organic Wool – The Fiber

Once the sheep are shorn, the wool must be washed, dried, picked or teased, carded or combed, spun or formed into batts, woven, felted, or knit, plus other processes for coloring and finishing the fabric or non-woven product.

According to Collier of Wool Traditions, “The OTA has proposed some standards but the USDA has adopted none, so you can’t have ‘certified’ organic processed wool. What you do get is labels that say ‘Made with organic wool’ but that leaves things wide open for how that wool was washed, dyed, and moth-proofed. What we need is scientists to work on how we can get an effective, biodegradable soap that is not polluting either in its use or its making.”

Collier explained, “Most US wool is washed with a very strong detergent called Tergitol, which is banned in Europe. Research done in Wales determined that, if it is not biodegraded properly, it enters the water system and changes the gender of aquatic animals. The wool processing industry has strict standards for the amount of lanolin (grease) allowed in wool prior to carding, and it is hard to give up the effectiveness of this harsh detergent.”

Formulating a truly eco-friendly wool scouring soap has proven to be a challenge. Collier, who worked with Texas A&M to do just this, said, “It’s not as strong, but seems to do a good job. Other people are using plant based detergents, palm or coconut oil, but they present their own problems. Petroleum distillate is used to crack these oils, and palm kernel oil is taken from Southeast Asian plantations that burn all their plant waste, creating pollution.”

Detergent isn’t the only polluter in wool processing. The following is taken from a July 29, 2004 fact sheet from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding fabric processors:

“Coating, printing, and dyeing operations emit a number of toxic air pollutants including toluene, methyl ethyl ketone, methanol, xylenes, methyl isobutyl ketone, methylene chloride, trichloroethylene, n-hexane, glycol ethers, and formaldehyde. Health effects associated with these pollutants include irritation of the eye, lung, and mucous membranes; effects on the central nervous system; and damage to the liver. Methylene chloride and trichlororethylene are classified as carcinogens.” And that’s just the air pollution.

Developing Organic Wool Certification

“There is an effort to do organic certification of fabrics and materials,” said Tom Goodwin, Farm Program Coordinator of Oregon Tilth. The effort, however, is still in the early stages.

“I’ve had two or three inquiries about certifying wool, including a large ranch in eastern Oregon. The current state is there’s an increased interest in growing and in markets,” said John Foster, an Oregon Tilth Farm Inspector. Only one organic wool producer is certified by Tilth, the Double Diamond Ranch mentioned earlier.

Although organic standards for certification of sheep for meat were developed years ago, the standards for fiber handling were adopted by OTA much more recently. Collier tried to influence the standards and talked to OTA staff about fiber processing regulations, but found larger interests dominating the conversation. “They should have done separate standards for wool and cotton, but the people who wrote the standards lacked experience with fiber and dyeing.”

Collier explained that dyeing is where organic fiber really hits the wall. “The cost of natural dyes has turned some of the large ‘organic’ clothing makers to chemical dyeing, which is done in China, where environmental regulations are minimal. China’s textile industry is booming. Wal-Mart has pushed textiles there and conditions in the factories amount to virtual slavery according to a series the LA Times did.”

When organic food was new, it faced many barriers, just as organic wool does. The reasons we need organic wool are similar, including reducing the terrible environmental burden of washing and dying with toxics, terrible working conditions, breed selection, pricing, and buyer awareness. Fortunately there are pioneers tackling these issues helping organic wool to grow out of its infancy into a future as a viable agricultural business and clothing market.

This article first appeared in the Oct/Nov In Good Tilth, Oregon Tilth’s bimonthly newsletter & is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.