Have You Any Organic Wool?
by Donna Druchunas (Email me)
(Sources for eco-friendly fleeces and yarns are posted at the bottom)
What could be more natural than wool?
Many people assume that wool is organic because it is a natural fiber. Some use the term organic informally, referring to wool that is not processed with harsh chemicals and that comes from farms with eco-friendly practices. Others use the term more explicitly in reference to wool that meets government standards for growing, processing and labeling.
Much of the confusion may stem from the fact that the word organic has several meanings. When I was growing up, I learned that all objects were either organic or inorganic. An organic object was a carbon-based life form. An inorganic object was, well, anything else. Usually a rock.
Over the past several decades the word organic has evolved to have a new meaning – a very specific technical and legal meaning. This new meaning is not related to what an object is made of; it is related to the way foods and products are grown and processed using environmentally friendly methods. The goal of these methods is to maintain soil fertility, minimize pollution, and advance sustainable agricultural practices.
According to the Canadian National Standard, “Organic agriculture is a holistic system of production designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agroecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people. The principle goal of organic agriculture is to develop productive enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment. (CAN/CGSB-32-310, Organic Agriculture)
For an item to be organic, it must be grown and processed without the use of synthetic or artificial fertilizers, hormones, medications or chemicals. For an item to be labeled certified organic, the production and processing must be certified with an independent local or regional agency that has standards equal to or exceeding the national standards of Canada or the United States. These standards are designed to help consumers trust labels and to help producers offer products that meet market demands. This sound simple, however, the details of each certification program are different and, as with all laws, there are loopholes that are often more easily taken advantage of by corporations and large institutions than by small farmers or fiber producers.
What is organic wool?
Defining organic qualifications for wool is complicated because it includes certification of both livestock production and fiber processing.
Organic livestock production is well defined by national standards in both Canada and the United States. Both standards share a set of basic requirements: livestock must be fed only certified organic feed and forage; synthetic pesticides, hormones, vaccinations, and genetic engineering are prohibited; wool growers must use practices that encourage livestock health. In addition to certification with approved agencies, these standards also require detailed record keeping and annual reviews by independent inspectors.
At this time, there are no national standards for organic fiber processing in either Canada or the U.S.
Organic livestock production
Organic livestock production is a farm management system that includes growing feed and the animals themselves. When implementing an organic system, farmers must consider soil fertility, crop rotation, soil management, livestock nutrition and health, and pest management.
According to many proponents of organic wool growing, the two most detrimental aspects of traditional farming methods are dipping to control external parasites and overgrazing.
To kill flies, fleas, and ticks, sheep are often submerged, or “dipped”, in pools which contain chemical paraciticides. These pesticides have harmful effects on the nervous systems of workers involved in their application, and their residues have been found in hand creams and lotions containing lanolin. The use of dips also presents an environmental risk of ground water contamination. Organic standards require that farmers use preventive practices and mechanical or biological methods to manage pests. These pest controls may include pest predators or parasites, traps, and non-synthetic repellents.
Organic livestock producers are also required to manage their herds to ensure that they do not exceed the natural carrying capacity of the land. While this requirement is designed to eliminate the devastating effects of overgrazing, it can have a detrimental economic effect. If wool prices drop, organic farmers cannot simply increase production as is standard with conventional methods. Ideally, certification should allow these farmers to receive a premium for the products they produce.
In the real world, things are not always this simple. Many farmers who adhere to these two standards still choose not to become certified organic because of problems controlling internal parasites and the high cost of organic feed.
The “wormer concern is by far the most serious and common. Becky Weed of Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company, a certified organic farm in Idaho, sums it up when she says, “Becoming certified organic is kind of a pain… the wormer issue scares a lot of people off. Virtually all sheep have internal parasites. The challenge is finding ways to manage these non-chemically without sacrificing the health of the sheep.
John Hayne of Beaverslide Dry Goods in Montana is also concerned when he says, “Sheep are extremely susceptible to internal parasites. At Beaverslide, the Haynes raise Rambouillet sheep, which are less susceptible to worms than other breeds – but even they are not immune. Because of concern about the health and well-being of their sheep, as well as the quality of their wool, the Haynes use traditional wormers.
At Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Co., the Weeds take a different approach, using a combination of techniques including genetic selection for parasite resistance; rotating pastures with hay-cutting and cattle-grazing to break parasite life cycles; feeding herb mixtures grown on the farm; and careful attention to full nutrition for their animals. “Like any integrated pest management, Becky says, “the goal is not to exterminate the pest completely (that is both impossible and undesirable), but to learn how to… keep it below levels that impair the animals.
Spring Creek Organic Farm in Montana and Rainbow Homestead in Wisconsin also avoid chemical wormers and practice rotating pasture management. “Through the growing season we rotationally graze, moving [our flock] to clean pasture every one to three days, Virginia Goeke of Rainbow Homestead explains. “When we researched parasites, we found that under ideal conditions some can re-infect the sheep in as few as four days, hence the short duration within paddocks. However, neither Spring Creek nor Rainbow Homestead are certified organic. This leads to the second major concern of farmers considering organic certification: the cost of feed.
What sheep can be fed economically differs across the regions of North America. Many farmers grain or hay to feed in winter because they don’t have enough land to grow all of their own feed. Sometimes organic feed is just not available or is not a good quality.
While the flock at Rainbow Homestead is 100-percent grass fed, the Ottensteins at Spring Creek Organic Farm have tried several times to find a good source organic feed for winter – without much success. In 2001, they had had 17 tons of certified organic alfalfa shipped in and paid a significant premium over local alfalfa. They were assured that the shipment was high quality, but discovered that at least a third of the bales were too moldy to feed.
Other farmers use feed that is raised organically but not certified. Doug Beggs of Spruce Haven Ranch, in Ontario, is one example. While not certified organic, Beggs states “I’m as eco-friendly as I can be. At Spruce Haven Ranch, all the feed used is organically grown but none of it is certified. To buy certified would double the cost.
Organic farming lies at one end of a spectrum of sustainable, eco-friendly farming practices. This spectrum extends from certified organic wool growers, to farmers practicing organic techniques who can’t afford to become certified, to those who practice eco-friendly farming but don’t become certified because of concerns for their animals health.
While I did not perform a scientific study or survey, it is interesting to note that among the farmers I spoke with, most of those interested in organic certification were either young or newcomers to farming and ranching. The farmers and wool growers with the most experience also had the most doubts and concerns about the economic and medicinal viability of solely relying on organic processes.
Not everyone feels that the organic standards address animal well-being with enough attention to detail. “I’d prefer to see the organic standards be a lot more sustainable and humane in terms of animal husbandry than they are now written, explains Goeke of Rainbow Homestead.
Beggs of Spruce Haven Ranch says, “I have a friend who is getting certified organic this year. She and her husband are young and idealistic! Its been a struggle for them and they need to accept higher death loss and poorer performance than I could live with myself. I admire her efforts but for me it just doesn’t pencil out. They are new to the land and I expect they will suffer greater losses once the parasite load builds up on their acreage.
The difficulties of becoming and sustaining organic certification are confirmed by Beth Kyle of the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency’s (OSMA) health program. While Kyle sees great potential for growth in organic farming in the future as a niche market, the OSMA stresses that farmers recognize realities of organic production. “Growth rates are slower and death losses are higher, Kyle says, noting that under many certification standards it takes three years for a piece of land to be considered organic. During those years, production costs will be high but the greater returns of offering organic products will not be available.
“It is near impossible to be organic with livestock,. John Hayne of Beaverslide Dry Goods concludes. While the Haynes use as few chemicals as possible and do not use hormones or antibiotics (except to treat pneumonia), they do not see organic certification as an efficient system.
Organic fiber processing
While all of these regulations seem formidable, the requirements for producing organic wool products go even further: the fleece must be cleaned, carded, spun and dyed without harsh detergents, petroleum-based oils or other chemical processes.
Tierra Wools, in New Mexico, is one of the few companies offering yarns from organically raised wool that is also processed naturally. However, “we have not claimed organic certification of our processing, says Robin Collier, Tierra Wools General Manager, “because there are no widely adopted standards. While it is true that there are no national standards for fiber processing in Canada or the U.S., the Organic Trade Association (OTA) is working on developing a North American standard to present to government agencies in both countries later this year.
Cleaning, or scouring, wool with harsh detergents, acids and other chemicals to remove dirt, lanolin and plant matter can damage the wool fibers and create the harsh itchy wools that are well-known in commercially knit products available in North America. As hand-spinners know, scouring with gentle soap and hot water cleans the wool beautifully, leaving a small amount of lanolin. This creates a softer product that retains more of the wool’s natural characteristics. In organic processing, only biodegradable detergents and degreasers are allowed. Carbonization, or treating wool in acid baths to dissolve plant material, is prohibited by organic standards. While some plant matter may remain in the fiber, most of this falls out during carding and spinning.
Hand spinning provides the most control over the spinning process. Many hand-spinners also create their own bats, rolags or slivers from raw fleece, gaining even more control over processing. Some hand spinners use spray bottles with water to control static, but if you leave even a small amount of lanolin in the wool, you don’t need any spinning oil to control static. Rainbow Homestead producesNatureWool hand-spun yarns for sale, but for most commercial processors, hand spinning is too inefficient.
Mechanical spinning is normally done using petroleum-based oils to control static and make the fleece draft smoothly into very even yarns. Russell B. Pierce, President of Bartlett Yarns in Maine, explains, “When the atmosphere is dry and prone to static electricity, it is beneficial to wet the wool stock before it is carded. The friction of carding creates heat that evaporates the oil. Many commercial wool processors also use harsh chemicals to moth-proof and “superwash wool, making it machine washable. Some smaller mills have developed organic spinning processes that include the use of vegetable based oils and most do not mothproof or superwash their wool.
Mule spinning, the first mechanized spinning process, is now used by only two mills in North America: Custom Woolen Mills in Alberta and Bartlett Yarns. Both of these mills have implemented eco-friendly practices, but neither is certified organic. The spinning mule, invented during the second half of the eighteenth century, creates a woolen yarn closer to hand spun than any other industrialized process. With a spinning mule, yarns are drawn, spun, relaxed, then wound about six feet at a time. These motions duplicate those of a hand spinner and allow the yarn to fluff up more than those spun on modern spinning machinery. As with hand spinning, mule spinning is too inefficient for the scale of processing required to provide wool yarns to commercial clothing manufacturers.
Green Mountain Spinnery in Vermont, is one example of a modern mill providing organic processing. Working with a local certification agency, they have developed a “Greenspun spinning process used to produce certified organic and natural colored yarns. The oil used in the Greenspun process is organically certified and contains no genetically engineered material. The spinnery doesn’t use this oil on all of their yarns, although they are considering this switch, because it is more expensive than commercial spinning oil and is slightly less effective in controlling static. There are other downsides to vegetable based oils. Bartlett Yarns uses “synthetic oil because, in our experience, natural oils tend to leave a rancid odor on the yarn.”
The mill that spins for Tierra Wools, Taos Valley Wool Mill in New Mexico, uses organic coconut oil. While they have been certified organic by the New Mexico Organic Commodities Commission, they have had so few requests for organic fiber processing that they are not planning to renew certification. However, they will continue using organic spinning oil and to clean all machinery between processing batches to ensure against contamination of organic wool.
While the natural colored yarns from these mills may be organic and chemical free, introducing dyes adds one more level of complexity. There are many types of dyes that can be used on wool and yarn. Most of these are synthetic and therefore do not comply to organic standards. However, synthetic dyes were not used until 1856. Before that, natural dyes were used. These dyes, derived primarily from plants, and are used today by specialty yarn producers. Despite their “natural origin, they may introduce environmental hazards when mordants, or chemicals made of metal extractions, are used to improve their light- and wash-fastness. Some mordants, such as alum, are perfectly safe, while others, such as chrome, are quite toxic.
Natural colored yarns are also becoming more popular and the “black sheep that were previously culled from flocks to provide “pure white fleece for dyeing are in demand again. At Custom Woolen Mills, Green Mountain Spinnery, and Rainbow Homestead, natural gray and black fleeces are spun separately and blended with white to create a wide range of undyed yarns.
Marr Haven farm in Michigan, uses a small amount of synthetic dyed yarn blended with natural colored fleece to produce heathery mule-spun yarns that have a much lower environmental impact than yarns made from 100-percent dyed fiber. While the heather yarns are not completely chemical free as natural colored yarns are, the blended yarns use only ten-percent or less of dyed wool.
Should I buy organic wool?
The benefits of certified organic and eco-friendly wool products are similar. Deciding whether or not to purchase only certified organic wool products is not simple.
For large-scale consumers and product manufacturers, buying certified organic wool may be the only viable method for ensuring eco-friendly products. In addition, consumer demand and export requirements may dictate that large-scale producers and manufacturers obtain organic certification.
For the small-sale consumer, there are options. When you buy certified organic products, you are supporting the organic industry and encouraging other wool producers to adopt practices that support a healthy environment. However, many small non-certified farmers and wool producers offer products equal or excel certified organic products in quality and ecological soundness.
For now, the best option may be to shop around and study the farming techniques and wool production processes used by the producers of fleece or yarn you are interested in purchasing.