Wyoming’s climate is known to produce fine wool, perfect for spinning into yarn and creating high-quality products. And the University of Wyoming’s (UW) Department of Agriculture has its own herd of sheep to study that wool. Two hundred and seventy-five Rambouillet ewes call the pastures at UW’s Laramie Research and Extension Center (LREC) home. Every year before giving birth, they’re sheared, producing around 10 to 12 pounds of wool each.
According to UW’s Extension sheep specialist Whit Stewart, normally UW’s sheared wool is baled and sent into a commodity market. There, it loses its traceability as it’s bought and sold throughout the world to be turned into products.
“If it goes into a commodity market, our producers don’t get the maximum value for that,” said UW College of Agriculture Dean Barbara Rasco.
Stewart would like that to change.
“If we’re producing this high-quality product in a landscape that’s really well suited for it, shouldn’t we be capturing some of that value at the state level?” he asked. “I mean, that’s the lament of agriculture in general, right, is we produce it here in Wyoming, but it leaves our state to be processed and value added.”
“If we’re in a situation where you produce the wool, and then the producer has some ownership on the use of that wool through to the final product, then it makes the whole overall operation for the producer much more economically viable,” added Dean Rasco.
So this year, for the first time, UW’s wool will be sent to Mountain Meadows Wool, a full-service mill in Buffalo that will transform it into custom blankets without it ever leaving the state.
“Every day we’re doing something custom,” said Ben Hostetler, operations manager at the mill. “And so we take it from the raw wool into a finished product and that’s a custom product from start to finish. I can’t think of anywhere in the US that actually does what we do.”
The wool will be machine knitted into about 300 blankets. If there’s extra wool, they may create other items.
“When we go through at the end, if we have leftovers, then it’s kind of a fun conversation. We can have a say ‘We have extra wool, do we want to make more yarn out of it? Do we want to make some other product that would go along with a blanket? Do we want to store it for next year?’ And we have those conversations,” said Hostetler. “If we run out, then we just run out in the project. Instead of 300, there’s going to be 285 of that limited edition run. That’s a benefit of 100 percent traceability is it’s not unlimited amounts, and so you get what you get at some point and that’s part of the novelty of it.”
After they’re finished, a hand-stamped leather tag will be sewn onto the blankets with its design edition and a QR code that uses blockchain technology to show the purchaser information about its production and specifically that it’s UW wool. Blockchain is becoming an important tool in the agriculture industry.
“The idea of blockchain is really to trace a product to its origin. In the case of animals, how it was handled, how it was treated, where it grew up,” said LREC Director Scott Lake, who’s also part of the UW Wool Throws Project. “This project, we probably aren’t going to be able to trace it back to an individual animal, but we can trace it back to the flock at UW, and it kind of demonstrates the capabilities of that technology.”
The project is partnered with the UW Center for Blockchain and Digital Innovations to utilize blockchain for this heightened traceability,
“We’ve had to kind of learn on the fly a little bit with that. I think those technologies are continuing to be a buzzword in the agricultural industries,” said Stewart.
He believes it will continue to become more widely used throughout the industry.
“For us, I think this pilots a broader effort that we are going to be working on to source verify not only our wool, but Wyoming producer’s wool, Wyoming lamb, and also breeding stock,” said Stewart. “As we trade breeding sheep across state lines, having some good records on their vaccinations, just their animal health, the blockchain application to this, this is just a small portion of that.”
Dean Rasco has been enthusiastically supportive of the project from the start stating that ‘there’s a lot of hidden technology in ag.’
“I thought,’This is super exciting!’ I see this as being a great project to promote our college and to support our wool producers across the state. It’s truly a Wyoming product from beginning to end,” she said. “And if we can help support a local firm, and one that is helping to promote some of our really great programs here at the university, I think it’s a great partnership. I’m really proud to be part of it.”
The blankets, which were designed by a UW fine arts student, will feature the UW color palette and bucking horse.
“If you leave design components to ag specialists, it’ll be functional but it won’t be pretty,” laughed Stewart.
According to Lake, the design will change every year.
“We have visions of opening it up to the arts and textile students to help with the design and then maybe even make a competition and we have internships developed out of this,” he said. “And so every year hopefully it’s a collector’s item.”
The revenue generated will go right back into the sheep program. Starting next summer, it will also support an internship at Mountain Meadow Wool to allow students to learn more about processing wool. And the team isn’t ready to stop at blankets.
“Long term, I’d love to see our football team wearing really high performance wool socks at the football games, I’d like to see lamb served at the stadium,” said Stewart. “I think this blanket project hopefully is creating awareness for a sustainable ag industry, and hopefully, we can highlight that and the broader opportunities at the university.”
The blankets will be sold for around $400, which is on par with other custom wool blankets. According to Stewart, they recognize the university’s and the state’s rich sheep production history.
“It should not be a bargain basement type price, right? People’s livelihoods are tied to what this is doing,” said Stewart. “I want this blanket to be accessible to everybody, but I think we’ve become so accustomed to products that are disposable in our society that these artisan products that are grown from our soils, grown from our ranchers, and in our state, I think has to come at a higher price point.”
Blanket pre-sales will start online in July. Stewart and Lake are both confident that the project will be highly successful and could lead to an expansion of the UW Sheep Program.
Everyone involved is excited for the opportunity to show students in the College of Agriculture that there are a lot of different ways they can be involved in the field. The project is a first of its kind.
“I think there are universities that do similar stuff, but I don’t think anybody has the unique story that we do where the entire project is in one state and the digital technology,” said Lake.
“There will be several after this breaks,” laughed Stewart.