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FASHION SHEEP FARMING
FOR VIRGIN FLEECE

As organic cotton and hemp fiber industries expand, so should natural wool. Sheep were among the first animals domesticated. An archeological site inIran produced a statuette of a wooled sheep which suggests that selectionfor woolly sheep had begun to occur over 6,000 years ago. The commonfeatures of today's sheep were already appearing in Mesopotamian andBabylonian art and books by 3000 B.C. Selection for wool type, flockinginstinct and other economically important traits over the centuries hasresulted in more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep occurring worldwide.Modern breeding schemes have also resulted in an increasing number ofcomposite or synthetic breeds which are the result of a crossing of two ormore established breeds.

What makes wool so useful as a fabric? Several characteristics set it apartfrom other types of fiber and make it a favorite of many clothingmanufacturers. Reasons follow:

FLAME RESISTANCE

Because of its unique physical and chemical makeup, wool does not melt orsupport combustion.

ABSORBENCY

Wool works with the body's natural temperature regulating system to keepyou warm in the winter and cool in the summer. How does it work? It allrevolves around wool's absorbent capabilities. During the winter when theair is cold and damp, wool absorbs the moisture and keeps a layer of dry,insulating air next to the skin. When it is warm, it again absorbs moisturein the form of perspiration and keeps insulating dry air next to the skin.In fact, this special feature has also caught the attention of the oilindustry. According to the American Sheep Industry Association, more andmore companies are turning to wool products for help in cleaning up oilspills. Wool can absorb from 10 to 30 times its weight in oil while stillrepelling water. The oil can then be squeezed out and the wool used again.Actually it can be reused up to eight times.

ADAPTABILITY

Wool comes in a variety of weights and weave. The quality of the wooldepends upon the type of sheep from which it comes, and the conditions underwhich the sheep is raised. Some sheep produce fine woolen fibers, whileothers grow coarse or medium ones. The wool industry uses all types. Coarsewool makes excellent carpets, medium wool turns into comfortable blankets,and fine wool produces beautiful dresses and suits.

DURABILITY

With the high cost of clothing these days, consumers want clothing thatwears long and well. Wool provides persevering wear, resists snags or tears,and retains its original shape for a long time. It doesn't even wrinkle,which is good for people on the go.

A SHEEP RAISING STORY

The McMurry family has transformed their once-conventional dairy farm inthe bluffs and bottomland of the Missouri River into a small, sustainableagricultural operation. For years they've sold raw wool to fiber artists,but last year in June they decided to create a line of handwoven apparel andblankets from their wool. They named their new business Genopalette, wool ina palette of sheep-produced colors.

At the end of high school Andy McMurry participated in a Future Farmers ofAmerica program, "Work Experience Abroad." He spent nine months working inNew Zealand where the average family farm runs two thousand head of sheep.In New Zealand and the world over, the wool industry standard is white. Itwas there that Andy was first introduced to the "subculture" of coloredsheep and wool, raised to provide wool for cottage industry fiber artists.The experience changed his life.

Ten years ago Andy imported naturally-colored Romney and Merino sheep fromNew Zealand breeders. The animals were shipped to Canada, quarantined, thentransported to Missouri. Those original sheep were the world-class breedingstock he used to build his flock of colored wool-producing sheep. Eventuallythe family sold raw fleeces to fiber artists nationwide. The wool regularlytook top honors at leading fleece competitions due to extraordinary colors,luster, unusual softness, style and cleanliness. Genopalette items beganwith this innate palette of luminous undyed colors and award-winning paletteof exceptional textures.

Andy raises those sheep in central Missouri on what he calls a "grass-basedsystem." The sheep graze on high-protein annual and native grasses withlegumes in this proven natural animal production method.

MANAGEMENT INTENSIVE GRAZING

Andy manages the grass by planting winter annual rye, wheat and triticale.He then moves the sheep from small grassy paddock to grassy paddock,sometimes as often as every twelve hours. As the sheep move forward, thegrass behind them is fenced off and given the chance to rest and replenish.Rain and sunlight then naturally cleanse and refresh the land. This in turngreatly reduces or eliminates the need for pesticides, herbicides andfertilizer. A major benefit to management intensive grazing (MIG) is thatlast year Andy McMurry had only one vet call for his entire flock. "They'rea lot more self-managed and they require a lot less fuss," he says. "Bymanaging grass and feeding grass, the last two years I've been able to grazeall year." The method also helps keep the wool clean, an important quality.Free of hay and chaff, it doesn't need the harsh chemicals that are oftenrequired to clean raw wool. Other positive ecological results of MIG includegreater plant diversity, density, health, and a degree of soil erosionprotection equaled only by native prairies grazed by the buffalo, prior tothe plow. Recent research supports MIG, which is how the buffaloinstinctively grazed.

SURVIVAL OF SMALL FARMERS

Other small farmers in their area are learning to prevail by adding valueto their crop and taking advantage of the Missouri Department of Agriculture's Value Added grant. "In other words, take the next step in theprocess of those products," said Tony Stafford, a program manager with theMissouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority quoted in theColumbia Daily Tribune. "It would put more money in the farmers' pockets if instead of selling blueberries, sell blueberry syrup, jam and jelly. Insteadof selling whole pecans, sell pecan pies."

"When you take on purebred sheep it is a long-term project," Andy quotes to the Columbia Daily Tribune. "And I'm talking decades, not years." In the ten years taken to establish his flock, he sometimes supplements his income asan interior-finishes contractor while nurturing the farm until it can once again support the family that works it. "Starting small is really important," he says. "The only way to learn this kind of stuff is by doingit. I really do think there is an opportunity for small farms again, buttotally different from what small farms used to be."

Andy holds a county Grassland Farmer Award as well as a Sustainable Agriculture Grant Demonstration Award. His model operation has been presented at a State Sustainable Agriculture Conference. A nationalagricultural TV show, Ag Day, reviewed the Genopalette story in July 1999which led to appearances on local news programs.

BECOMING VOGUE

The McMurry's Romneys and Merinos, with their shades of walnut, beige,taupe, silver and black fleeces, are bred for their distinctive wool.Colored sheep are rare. Among predominant wool breeds, only about one in one thousand occur naturally. Intrigued by the unusual beauty of these naturally colored sheep, only a few pioneering shepherds worldwide produce small amounts of colored wool.

The McMurry family now raises several hundred head of sheep on their farmin Franklin, Missouri. The sheep are shorn, the wool is sorted andclassified, then gently washed without harsh chemicals and spun to theirspecifications. As the colors are mixed by hand, they are never exactly thesame from year to year, much like vintage wine. Yet many distinct color categories are created. The completed woven good is never treated with mothor shrink-proofing chemicals.

This year the McMurry family is again keeping part of the wool shorn in the spring. The yarn from their virgin, undyed wool is handwoven into ready-madegarments they are selling to nearby retailers.

FARMING PURSUITS

Given present concerns of many consumers over the effects of conventionalfarming and textile processes on our planet, Genopalette is excited to meetthe challenges of this growing niche market. The innovative tradition ofproducing beautiful, undyed colors and warmth from totally natural fiber,grown and harvested with environmental consciousness, persists. As theenvironmental fashion industry grows, so should the appreciation of purevirgin, naturally-colored wool.

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