New use for wool could boost state's sheep industry
NEW HAVEN — Since shortly after its glory days supplying wool blankets and uniforms to Union troops during the Civil War, the Vermont wool industry has been struggling to regain its footing.
Now a New Haven farm is taking part in a UVM study to determine the feasibility of using wool as an environmentally friendly building insulation. Researchers hope this use could create a whole new market for the 100,000-some-odd pounds of wool that’s sheared each year off Vermont sheep and give a much-needed boost to the state’s sheep industry.
“The hope is that we can make a Vermont product and in doing so create jobs and contribute more to the agricultural economy,” said Anna Freund, who operates Open View Farm with spouse Ben Freund.
Open View has just been awarded a $30,000 USDA grant to research wool building insulation.
The Freunds raise Dorset-Tunis cross sheep for meat and wool, make maple syrup, raise laying hens and heritage-breed broilers and grow a variety of vegetables. Their 180-acre Open View Farm north of New Haven Junction is recognizable for its sweeping pastures on the west side of Route 7, where sheep graze under a 2.5 megawatt solar array.
Like most Vermont sheepherders, the Freunds sell wool through the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association’s annual wool pool.
“People who have sheep bring their wool, it gets weighed, it gets loaded on a truck, and then it goes somewhere in the Midwest and then they grade it and then they send you a check,” Anna Freund said. “It’s usually a pretty low price. For us it hasn’t really even covered the cost of shearing,” Freund said.
UVM Extension Grazing Specialist and fellow sheep farmer Kimberly Hagen also wants to find a better answer to the Vermont farmers who have “bags and bags of wool in their barns, with nothing to do, no market for it.”
Hagen is the driving force behind the wool insulation study, and UVM Extension is Open View’s main partner on the project.
The study will investigate both ways to process raw wool into insulation and the potential market for this product. The study will bring Anna Freund and Hagen together with a team of experts from across a variety of endeavors, including the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets; green building techniques and technologies; and wool fibers processing.
Vermont farmers lack a good market for their wool, Hagen explained, because of the structure of the wool market and the kinds of sheep best suited to Vermont’s climate. Most clothing is made from fine-grade wool, which comes from Merino sheep and their ilk, she said. But Merinos — even though they topped the charts on Vermont’s 1800s wool boom — don’t actually do well in Vermont’s climate.
It’s not the cold, said Hagen, it’s the damp.
Merinos originate from Spain, where they remained a closely guarded state secret for centuries. And being from Spain, they like dry, sunny climates and are susceptible to parasites and diseases in places like Vermont.
Damp-hardy sheep breeds, like the Suffolks, Dorsets, Romneys and their assorted mutts and crosses that do best in Vermont, come from places like England, Scotland and Norway. All are dual purpose, providing both meat and wool. And all produce what’s considered a mid-grade fiber.
Moreover, said Hagen, grazing and climate itself affect the fineness of wool fibers, and Vermont’s lush vegetation is too rich a forage to produce the finest-grade Merino-type wool, even if those sheep could flourish here.
Hagen first learned about building insulation made from wool during a research trip to France about eight years ago. She said the product is manufactured and used much more widely in Europe, in batting, rope and blow-in forms.
In the United States, Hagen knows of only one wool insulation producer, Montana Green Insulation. Hagen will contact the Malta, Mont., company as part of the study to see if it’s better to produce the wool insulation in Vermont or partner with an existing manufacturer.
According to Montana Green’s website, sheep wool has an R-Value of 4.08 per inch. As a green insulation material, wool is considered desirable because it:
• Doesn’t retain moisture, unlike cellulose insulation.
• Is naturally fire retardant.
• Retains its springiness over time, so the insulation doesn’t compact and lose efficacy.
• Is safe to install.
• Requires 90 percent less energy to manufacture than mineral wool insulation.
• Acts as an air purifier and filter.
• Insulates sound.
• Biodegrades naturally.
Best for Vermont sheep growers, it would create a market for a product that now is largely a cast-off.
Hagen said the study would likely focus on blown-in type insulation, rather than batting because she thought it would be more cost-effective to produce. The study might also look at wool as a component in doors and windows and using wool in upholstery. She also said the volumes of wool needed to create a wool insulation industry would necessarily have to draw on surrounding states, not just Vermont.
For all the ways that wool insulation could benefit the state’s sheep farmers and the state’s agricultural economy, Hagen also noted that sheep provide a unique benefit to the Vermont landscape, in terms of overall sustainability.
“We have pretty rugged land and thin topsoils, and I just see that sheep are much better. They’re lighter on the land than cattle,” said Hagen. “We have places that are appropriate for cattle and for dairy and beef farms. But the higher up in elevation we go and the thinner the soils and the rockier and ledgier, the sheep can do quite well. They don’t need high intensity, highly nutritious forages. They can provide meat and milk and fiber on weeds basically.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.