Once the wool fibers are washed and carded, a term for aligning the fibers for processing, the fibers are then spun into yarn.
In 2002, Karen Hostetler and a friend had this idea of creating a craft store that would sell yarn and knitted products made from Wyoming wool.
That idea ballooned into Mountain Meadow Wool in Buffalo, the largest full-service spinning mill west of the Mississippi. And it’s all based on a marketing strategy that is becoming familiar to agriculture in Wyoming.
Any rancher or farmer will tell you agriculture is a hard job. You’re at the mercy of a lot of unknowns, such as weather. And even when everything you can’t control goes smoothly, commodity prices can easily send a rancher into the red.
In a state with a sparse population spread out over wide distances, it’s hard for family ranches to compete with large conglomerates. Since they can’t compete on volume, they’re trying to compete on value.
To do that effectively requires marketing strategies that brand Wyoming’s agricultural products as superior to others and worth a premium.
Some Wyoming beef producers are using blockchain technology to maintain the integrity of their product. As people begin to ask questions as to where their food comes from, they will pay extra if they can trace their meal back to its source and see every link of the chain in between.
Hostetler is doing that with Wyoming wool products.
“More and more, consumers want to know the story behind what they purchase,” Hostetler explained. “Wyoming produces some of the finest wool in the country. It’s known for it.”
Most Wyoming wool is sold to big mills on the East Coast or overseas, where it’s combined with wool from across the country. By the time it becomes a sweater or hat, it’s impossible to know where it came from.
The wool in the products produced at Mountain Meadow can not only be traced back to Wyoming, they can be traced back to the individual ranch that produced the wool.
When Hostetler was looking in 2002 to produce Wyoming wool products for a small craft operation, she found there were no mills anywhere in the state.
So, she and her friend, Valerie Spanos, who left the company in 2015, decided to make their own wool. They purchased a couple hundred pounds of raw Wyoming wool and took it to a mill in Canada.
That produced about 100 pounds of yarn, which eventually dwindled away into the crafts they sold. That sparked the idea of how nice it would be to have a mill in Wyoming.
“This suddenly became something bigger than a little craft shop,” Hostetler said.
The Cowboy State produces about 2 million pounds of wool a year now. In the 1960s, it was around 20 million pounds. The decrease is steep, but it’s not because Wyoming decided to get out of the wool business. This was a trend across the United States.
“It’s a pretty substantial decrease, but we are still number three in wool production in the country,” Hostetler said.
Crazy or brave
The partners then sat down and, for a couple years, worked on a Small Business Innovation Research grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which awarded them $386,000. That paid for trips to mills and research institutions, including one to New Zealand, where Hostetler learned all about wool.
Creating a mill in Wyoming was a lofty goal. At the first trade show Hostetler attended, she spoke about her plan with a man who owned a mill in Pennsylvania. He had just laid off 200 employees.
“He said you’re crazy. You’re crazy or brave—one of the two,” Hostetler recalled.
Today, the mill employs 17 part- and full-time employees. It purchases about 25,000 pounds of wool exclusively from Wyoming producers. It’s a small portion of the 2 million pounds produced in the state every year, but the benefit to the producers is Mountain Meadow pays them a premium price for the wool.
When they first started the mill, wool prices were low. Mountain Meadow was paying about 40 percent higher than the going market rate at that point.
Currently, wool prices are quite high, so Mountain Meadow is matching the commodity rate, and there is a minimum they won’t go below. The producer gets some stable pricing.
In turn, Hostetler explained, Mountain Meadow produces quality products that are branded Wyoming.
“Everything that comes out of here is going to have that ranch’s name on it….We follow it all the way through the system, from the [bundle] of yarn to the sweater or the hat. It’s building that brand identity for Wyoming and Wyoming wool.”
Though they’ve bought from producers around the state, the wool is currently coming from four counties: Converse, Sheridan, Johnson, and Campbell.
That 25,000 pounds of wool comes in bales that are roughly 5-feet cubed. It then goes through a washing process to remove dirt and grease. The washed product is about half the weight of the raw product.
It then goes through several more processes that align the fibers of wool into long strands, and then finally, it’s spun into yarn. Lastly, the yarn is dyed a variety of colors.
The company’s employees take a lot of pride in their work. Throughout the summer, Hostetler said they give tours daily, which are quite popular. And the tour-goers usually end up purchasing something in the craft store in front of the mill, once they see how everything is made.
Mountain Meadow also sells their yarn all over the country, including to shops across Wyoming. The Fiber House in Sheridan is one of their Wyoming buyers.
Hostetler is now planning a second phase next year in which they will begin producing finished items in another portion of the mill. These will be sweaters, hats, and mittens—all made from high quality Wyoming wool.
“I don’t think we can do socks,” she said.
Though the company is growing and enjoying the highest number of employees in its history, 11 years is very young in the mill business. The profit, she said, is quite fragile still.
“I can’t say we’re a total success story, yet,” she cautioned.
However, she thinks the worst of it is behind her, and it’s a good time to be a manufacturer in America. She was recently invited to the White House with manufacturers, large and small, from across the country to present their businesses at a “Made in America” showcase.
“I think we passed the real danger zone,” she said. “We’ll just keep plugging away and keep those sheep on the plains of Wyoming.”