By Tom Parker

The booming popularity of goats, alpacas, sheep and other non-traditional species for livestock production has created new markets and avenues of revenue for producers willing to learn how to integrate and innovate into more diversified operations. One lesser-known but potentially lucrative niche market associated with non-traditional animals is the fiber market, where the wool is processed into skeins, rovings or yarns for the textile industry.

Breaking into the animal fiber market, determining which animals are right for fiber production, how to pick a processing mill and learning what the end customer wants was the focus of a workshop held on Saturday, May 30, at the Phillipsburg County Annex Building in Phillipsburg. The day-long workshop, sponsored by Amazing Grazing II, a collaboration with the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Graziers Association, included guest speakers Sally Brandon, co-owner, with husband Jay, of the Shepherd’s Mill, Kansas’ only fiber processing mill, and Rachael Boyle, K-State Research and Extension, Phillips-Rooks District. Following the workshop, participants toured the mill.

“Niche marketing isn’t necessarily easy,” Brandon said, “but my dad said that anything worth having is worth working for.”

She got into the animal fiber business in a roundabout way, beginning with a request to her father.

Images from the Animal Fiber Opportunities workshopAt the time she was a seventh-year 4-H’er, but experiences in the arena with animals several times her size had left her bruised and battered. Accordingly, she asked her father for something smaller, something more manageable. Sheep, say. Her father was not amused. “Your grandfather,” he told her tersely, “would turn over in his grave.”

While it’s unknown if her grandfather did, in fact, turn over in his grave, Brandon has gone on to make a successful career with the fiber industry, culminating in the 2004 opening of The Shepherd’s Mill in downtown Phillipsburg. The mill employs four full-time, two part-time and two project employees, including her husband, Jay, who also farms.

The animal fiber market can be a viable way for small farms to diversify their product line, she said, though farmers should be aware that it’s more of a succession of small steps, or what she calls “ripples,” rather than an instant success.

“We have a ripple farm,” she said. “You throw out a pebble, you watch the ripples spread. You start in a small area.”

When she first started marketing fabrics made from processed fibers, the world did not descend upon her family’s farmhouse. It was not a Field of Dreams experience. Instead, she watched cars whizzing by at 65 miles per hour, frustrated that her potential market base was completely oblivious to her presence. After her mother suggested adding a sign for “antiques,” the sound of car brakes was a constant.

“That little ripple started a bigger ripple,” she said. “We reached across the state and into Nebraska; a bigger ripple. The mill has grown to 43 states; a bigger ripple. Now we’re doing something different by branching into the retail industry. It’s a continual process of growth.”

It might seem self-evident, but the quality of the fiber depends on both the quality of the animal and the care it has received. Proper animal husbandry such as providing dry, well-ventilated shelter, clean bedding, protection from predators, the proper nutrition and clean water, are crucial elements in ensuring a healthy animal with healthy fleece, Boyle said. Pastures that are free of stickers, burs and thistles are also important, as their introduction into the animal’s coat makes processing that much more difficult. “The care you give your animal determines how they grow and perform,” she said. “The decisions you make affect their health.”

Rare breeds and long-wool sheep are popular for their fiber, as are alpacas, llamas, camels, bison, quiviut, yak and various species of goats such as angora or cashmere. Even dog and cat fibers can be processed. “We have a variety of options,” Brandon said. “Everything has a possibility.”

The color of the fiber is also important, Brandon said.

“Breeders love brown animals, but brown fiber isn’t selling in retail markets,” she said. “Still, color sells. And it doesn’t matter which color, because somebody will like it. I know this sounds odd, but the color I love the most tends to be the last one to sell. I thought it was because I had bad taste, but it’s about my personality.”

Knowing the customer’s personality is much like knowing their tastes in yarn, she added. “Right now, one of the hottest trends is in yarn with texture. That’s where customers are heading,” she said. “Blends are also popular, and there’s been a big change in the last eight years. At first nobody wanted anything blended into alpaca—it had to be 100 percent alpaca wool. But there’s no such thing as a perfect fiber; each has its own challenges. Blending can make them a little bit better, and it’s become a huge amount of our business.”

It’s also important to know what makes great yarn. Her advice for novices is to hang around specialty yarn shops and talk to both customers and business owners about their favorite yarns and fibers. “Ask questions that you need to know anyway,” she said. “End users are looking for sellers who who have at least a basic knowledge of their products. Talking to them builds relationships and earns trust. That’s what it’s all about. You also gain experience from someone who’s already doing it.”

The most successful fiber producers are those who sell finished products as well as processed yarns and rovings, she said, but much of that market lies beyond the immediate area. “You can’t sell all of your fiber locally because we’re in a conservative area,” she said. “The biggest possibility for marketing local products are social media marketing and having an online presence.”

Reputation is also a marketable quality. “End users are looking for a known quality,” Brandon said. “It’s cheaper to keep a customer than look for new customers. It takes time, but once you have somebody behind you that comes back, it’s worth it to work with that customer.”

Two additions to the retail store have made huge boosts in sales, she said. The mill now offers color swatches made from skeins that fall under standard lengths and project patterns for knitters and crocheters. “It’s simple, but the difference it made was amazing,” she said.

Pricing is another consideration for the fiber market. According to a survey conducted by the National NeedleArts Association, over $800 million was spent in 2013 by knitting, crocheting, spinning, weaving and needlepoint practitioners. Yarn sales from blends or natural fibers accounted for $377 million in sales.

“Niche marketing does not fit the Walmart mentality,” Brandon said. “Don’t be afraid to price it high because it can always go down. That’s me preaching to me because that’s been one of the most difficult things for me to learn. I’m Midwestern, very conservative and frugal.”

Probably the biggest influencer for breaking into niche marketing is your own local story, she said.

“You have a story to tell, and you need to tell it right,” she said. Folks that have been off the farm are now seeking relationships that get them back to their roots. We’ve pushed agritourism, and while this is the same theory, it doesn’t have to be tied to tourism.”

In the end, though, fiber producers have to be able to make money at this, Brandon said.

“The key is to adapt to conditions and changes.” she said. “I can’t keep up with all the things they’re doing with fiber. What works today might not work tomorrow. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. We can still all work together to promote our businesses, but we have to constantly adapt. There are some exciting things coming up, and I’m excited about it.”