By Rachel Wagoner
NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Trucks sit in a line at the entrance to the Lawrence County Fairgrounds, with beds piled high and trailers loaded full with bagged wool. Over the course of the day June 8 and June 10, people hauled in their wool to be sorted, weighed and baled as part of the annual Lawrence-Mercer County wool pool.
For nearly a century, the pool has fetched competitive prices for wool for regional sheep producers. The event is hosted by the Lawrence County Cooperative Wool Growers and Mercer County Cooperative Wool Growers Association.
While the price per pound for wool is lower now than it has been in many years, the pool remains one of the best ways to unload their product, wool producers said.
“This is one of the only pools left on the western part of the state,” said Bob Calvert, secretary of the Mercer County association.
The directors of each group accepted bids from wool buyers based on the amount of wool the pool brought in last year, which was about 30,000 pounds in 10 categories, Calvert said. This year, three buyers put in bids, and the boards chose Chargeurs Wool USA, based in Jamestown, South Carolina.
Calvert said the pool for Lawrence and Mercer counties has been going on since sometime in the 1920s. There used to be a pool in each county. Back then, there were pools throughout western Pennsylvania, including in Butler, Washington, Indiana and Venango counties, as well as locations in Waynesburg, Meadville and Titusville, Pennsylvania, Calvert said. Now, the Lawrence-Mercer pool is one of two left in the region. The other is in Washington County.
Bonnie Massing, who is on the board of directors for the Mercer County association, said before they had mechanical balers to compress and package the wool for shipping, they had to do it manually. This meant stuffing wool in large bags and having a person jump inside the bag to stomp it down, she said. Calvert said that 3/8 and 1/4 staple wool, one of the most common grades brought in to the pool, is going for 60 cents per pound this year. Several years ago, it was at 90 cents to $1 per pound.
Wool is graded into one of 10 categories when it enters the pool, ranging from fine staple at $2 per pound to natural colors at 18 cents per pound. When prices were higher, the pool saw producers from as far away as Harrisburg, New York, and Washington Court House, Ohio, Calvert said.
“The lines of trucks waiting would be out to the end of the fairground,” Massing said.
How it works. The wool brought in is graded and weighed on site, and producers get paid that day for their goods.
In previous years, the wool brought in was shipped out and graded by the buyer, Calvert said. While it made for less work up front for the pool workers, producers had to wait to get paid, he said. When it is graded on site, producers can watch the process unfold in front of them.
“If they have a problem, they can confront us there on the spot,” Calvert said. “And people like to get paid the day they drop something off.”
Graders quickly assess a number of factors about each fleece, including how clean it is, how long and how fine the fiber is, Bonnie Massing said. They look at the “crimp,” which is the waviness of individual strands, and to see if there are any “breaks,” or weaknesses, in the wool. Calvert said predominantly the wool gets sorted into the light vegetable matter or 3/8 and 1/4 staple categories, which sell for 57 cents and 60 cents per pound, respectively. The lower quality wools turn into things like insulation, carpeting and overcoats. “Most wool is not next-to-your-skin wool,” Bonnie Massing said.
As the wool is graded, it is put into large metal baskets, which are then weighed on the scale. The basket itself weighs about 34 pounds and each load weighs anywhere from 80 to 200 pounds, said Bob Massing, also of the Mercer County association. Once the wool is sorted, it’s put into piles to be baled. The bales weigh on average about 440 pounds.
Wool slump. The pool brought in 30,000 pounds of wool in 2018, Calvert said, and that was half of what came in to the 2017 pool.
It can be disheartening when producers compare the prices of past years, combined with the cost of shearing and transporting the wool to the pool, Bonnie Massing said.
Sheep need to be sheared each year though, regardless of the price of wool.
“For many years, the value of sheep was in wool. Meat was secondary,” Bob Massing said. “Now, you almost have to pay to get rid of (wool).”
The wool pool remains one of the best options for producers to sell though. There is a small cost to participate. Producers are charged 13 cents per pound to cover costs. The other option for getting rid of bulk wool is to deal with the buyer directly. Producers then cut out the middleman, but may be stuck with an undesirable price from one buyer.
“I know it helps out competition wise,” Calvert said. “It makes it so other wool buyers have to give a competitive price. If we weren’t here or didn’t have these outside bidders, the producers would be at the mercy of the two or three buyers.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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