One of the country’s major wool buyers is closing its doors later this year, citing the woeful state of the wool markets and rising costs.
Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative, based in Canal Winchester, Ohio, sent a letter to its customers last week saying it would stop accepting wool May 1. The letter said the board of directors decided to close in 2023.
“The wool marketing season of 2022 was your cooperative’s worst marketing season since the wool glut of the 1990s. With rising costs and no market for the wool that our producers send in, the difficult decision was made,” the letter stated.
Mid-States sells about 1.5 million pounds of wool each year from its 3,000 members from across the country. It has bought in wool from more than 30 states, as far west as Arizona and New Mexico.
The wool market collapsed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it had been on the decline for years, said Dave Rowe, general manager for Mid-States.
A penny a pound is what farmers will get for their wool these days, Rowe said. Fine staple wools, the type that is made into clothing, may bring in up to 50 cents per pound. That’s compared with five or 10 years ago when medium grade wool could bring in up to 50 cents per pound and fine wool brought in up to $1.70 per pound.
“It’s got to be able to go against the skin,” Rowe said, for farmers to get a good and fair price for their wool. “The comfort factor with coarse wool is nowhere near what is deemed acceptable, or even excellent.”
Coarse wools have struggled to find “not even a market, but just an interest in it,” he said. Coarse wools used to be used in some clothing, like socks, but now are mostly sold for industrial uses, like pads, absorbents and insulation.
That’s most of what’s produced from commercial flocks in the Eastern U.S., said Melanie Barkley, extension educator with Penn State University. The U.S. as a whole doesn’t do a good job at producing marketable wool, she said. Much of the wool is average to lower quality.
Mid-States has been around for more than a century. It began as Tri-State Wool Marketing in 1918, serving Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio producers from its warehouse in Cincinnati. In 1921, the co-op purchased a warehouse in Columbus and became known as Ohio Wool Growers Cooperative Association.
In 1974, Ohio Wool Growers Cooperative Association merged with Midwest Wool Marketing Cooperative, which was organized in 1931 in Kansas City, Kansas, to become Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative. Mid-States moved to its current location in Canal Winchester in 1995.
Seven people are employed by the cooperative. It’s not clear what will happen once they finally close later this year, Rowe said. The cooperative will hold a meeting of its members in the near future to decide formal next steps.
“We have a great appreciation for our customers and our members,” Rowe said. “That’s going to be the hardest thing for us is not having interaction for them and being able to be a source of help for them.”
The cooperative is still sitting on about half a million pounds of wool in its warehouse, which it will continue to market. Rowe said Mid-States is keeping its supply department open for the time being, focusing strictly on animal health products. It’s in the process of selling out of show equipment.
Challenges and opportunities
The difficulty in selling wool is nothing new to U.S. sheep producers, but losing this major market will put more of a strain on the industry. Many farmers have been storing wool, waiting for the market to recover.
There are a couple other larger buyers of wool across the eastern U.S., Barkley said.
“People might need to market it locally,” she said.
There may be an opportunity for smaller wool processors to fill a niche, Barkley said. For example, home improvement retailer Lowe’s will start selling wool fertilizer pellets in March produced by Utah-based Wild Valley Farms.
For larger producers, Rowe said they may need to adapt their flock to the wool market if they want to see a return on their fleeces. Right now the money is in fine wool that is used in clothing and apparel.
That might mean using fine wool ewes or crosses in their meat flocks to produce better quality fleeces, “and whatever the market is for your lambs, that’s the ram you use,” Rowe said.
“Listen to the market,” he said. “The market will tell you what it wants. That’s ultimately your best signal for demand.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-201-1544.)
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It was no surprise to hear that Mid-States Wool closed its doors. They should have closed years ago when they could not find a viable market for wool. They were no longer doing their job as a cooperative for sheep farmers if they couldn’t find better markets for the wool. A lot of shepherds stopped taking wool to them as what we were paid didn’t even pay for our gas to take it there. I felt insulted when I received a check in the mail for $14.00 for 147 lbs of wool back in 2017. I stopped patronizing Mid-States Wool Company after I got fleeced. I take a lot of my wool to Zeilingers Wool Company in Frankenmuth, Michigan and have them to not only process the wool but to make comforters, pillows, mattress pads, socks, sleeping bags. I have shipped wool to MacAusland’s Wool Company in Canada, to make blankets.
Producers should be encouraged to improve their wool clip by using good studs and only sell the very best product from their farms. There is an excellent domestic market for fine wool and it’s ridiculous to only get $1.79 for merino wool. Raw, skirted Merino, grown in the USA, will bring at least $10 per pound and up to $25 a pound to hand spinners. But, again, producers need to be responsible for the wool they sell. A good reputation goes a long way.