By Julianna Van Adrichem
Jennifer Osborn of All Sorts Acres has been farming sheep for 15 years and in her struggle to find a market for their wool, she has created an entirely new product and one that farmers will love.
Most don’t know, but less than three per cent of sheep wool in Canada is appropriate for clothing, industrial uses, or any other purpose. Osborn discovered this after co-founding the first International Fibreshed Affiliate, hours of hands-on research, reading sources from across the world, poking through history, and talking with other sheep farmers. In Canada, a very small amount of sheep wool is used to produce… well… anything.
By her best estimate, even very little of the better quality wool isn’t processed due to a lack of demand and processing capacity, both in Canada and internationally.
Shepherds’ options are to deliver the wool to the closest wool depot and be paid an amount that won’t even cover the fuel cost to get the wool there, let alone cover the cost of shearing, store the wool in a barn, or dispose of it in a burn pile, taking it to the landfill, or dumping it in the back acreage.
But, Jennifer discovered there was a fourth option: pelletizing wool to be used as a soil amendment. Beyond being an economical solution for sheep farmers, and a great solution to a big waste problem, the pellets provide a long list of benefits to soil.
It started with two sheep in 2008
Osborn’s journey began with the unexpected gift of two Shetlands. She reminisces, “the sheep were free and they needed a home, so they stayed. Little did I know that those two fuzzy critters would be the reason I would have a barn full of raw wool 15 years later!”
The spring following Itchy and Scratchy’s arrival, they needed to be sheared. Sheep shearing is hard, dirty, tiring work that breaks backs and takes off fingers (not that those accidents happened on this little farm!) One after the next, sheep must be wrestled or at least persuaded to shear their fleece and relieve them of six months’ worth of wool – about six pounds (2.7 kg) on average.
Jennifer recalls that she got into sheep farming, “with a bit of idealism that all of our wool would be not only usable but wanted – boy was I wrong”. This was disappointing, to say the least. On top of being unable to sell her wool, she hated to be producing more waste in a world full of ecological issues. Not to mention, she “only had so much acreage to dump that wool on!”
Jennifer wouldn’t accept this sorry fate for her wool: surely there was another solution for this once-valuable material. She says, “being the tenacious, some would even say ‘stubborn’ type, I kept seeking solutions and talked to everyone I could about using waste wool”: from other farmers to government officials. Ideas and concepts were vast and with the support of COIL (Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad) in Guelph, EcoWool Canada Inc. came to life. It is the shared vision of having non-food agricultural and organic waste returned to the land in pellet form to provide a long list of benefits and solutions.
What happened? Didn’t wool use to be a popular commodity?
Wool has historically been a valuable natural fibre, with many uses – from warm clothing to upholstery stuffing. It was one of the first commodities to enter international (with Europeans’ involvement) trade, and from the 17th to the first half of the 20th century, wool textiles were a leading global industry.
However, in the mid-1900’s things began to change as fierce competition from synthetic fibers caused the demand for woolen products to drop dramatically. This, of course, led to a plummeting of raw wool’s market price to below the cost of shearing and transportation.
Other factors also affected the demand for wool. As the market for textile-grade wool dropped, farmers switched to breeds that were better for meat - the tradeoff being that their sheep grew rougher, scratchier wool containing a lot of kemp (coarse fibres), making it practically unusable for textiles, but still needing to be sheared regularly for the animal’s welfare. Furthermore, a decreasing number of potential buyers even for high-grade wool, and diminishing infrastructure for collecting, washing, and trading that wool made the industry economically unsustainable.
There is an enormous amount of raw wool that doesn’t leave sheep farms or go to landfills. Because of this, it is very hard to accurately determine just how much waste wool there is in the world. Additionally, the wool supply chain produces huge amounts of waste at each stage: carding, combing, spinning, and weaving.
Whether the wool will be sold or not, regular shearing is required for sheep health, so farmers continue to shear their sheep’s wool for their welfare with no profit in sight.
Baaaaad news for Canadian Wool Production
In Canada, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of COVID on global trade. The pandemic caused a significant drop in demand for our wool and a reduction in prices, especially since newly-sheared wool is always ready to come on the scene!
China has historically been the main market for Canadian Wool, but very stringent COVID mandates and extreme heat due to climate change have led the government to reduce production hours. As a result, they have been buying less and less of our wool.
Previously, we produced blankets, stuffing, mattresses, carpets, and much more from our Canadian wool. This required manufacturing capabilities from scouring (washing) mills to spinning and weaving mills – most of which are now closed down. Left are the brave and pioneering mini-mills that take fleeces from small flocks, processing them for handmade markets. These mills are reinventing our fibre landscape, but they only have the capacity to handle the best raw wool.
Wool Pellets - a solution to waste wool
After years of research and consideration, Osborne had an idea. As it turns out, wool makes an incredible soil amendment. By pelletizing it for use in agricultural or small-scale gardening, she could close the loop on wool, returning the nutrients to the soil locally to improve farm fertility.
Besides being lightweight and easy to move around and spread over your acreage, there are many other benefits you can expect from using this exceptional soil amendment: like a sponge, wool is very effective at absorbing and releasing moisture as conditions around it change. Wool can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in water during rainfalls, later releasing it slowly into the soil. This steady supply of moisture to the soil from wool is a great way of stabilizing soil moisture and protecting plants from drowning. Wool’s ability to absorb moisture means that the pellets expand, aerating the soil, improving the soil’s ability to retain oxygen, and building soil structure.
They also make great mulch and are an effective alternative to plastic row covers, reducing vast amounts of plastic waste. You’ll never again have to worry about plastic covers tearing and degrading, making you feel guilty for creating plastic waste! Used as a mulch, pellets also provide protection to the soil from pounding rain, retaining the soil structure and reducing erosion.
Wool is a rich source of nitrogen and potassium, (NPK = 10.0.3) so it promotes plant growth while not adding to the phosphorus load. The nitrogen is also released slowly, thus avoiding nitrate leaching and runoff before plants can utilize the nutrient. Studies have shown that the use of wool pellets can result in higher yields!
Jennifer may have had a rude awakening during her first shearing in 2007. Still, her journey to turn Ontario’s wool into a valuable resource will be of great benefit to sheep farmers and crop growers alike.
They plan to eventually have the capacity to process about 50,000 kg of raw wool per year and make a significant dent in Ontario’s growing pile of waste wool.
Now that you know how much wool is just sitting around, underutilized, and how exceptional it is for soil, it seems so obvious to feed it to our plants, doesn’t it? What’s better than bringing a waste product full-circle, into a valuable and productive product that provides a laundry list of benefits to the soil and farmers in the process?
Osborn tells us, “I’m biased, but I’m going to say… not much.“
For more information about EcoWool, please visit their website ecowool.ca, and for All Sorts Acres, visit allsortsacres.ca. ◊