20 September, 2012

B.C. Sheep and Wool Industry Overview 1990

I ran across a report, "British Columbia Sheep and Wool Industry Overview, April 1990" on the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture website, http://www.al.gov.bc.ca/sheep/publications/documents/bc_sheep_wool_ind_overview_1990.pdf which is exactly what it says.  I found it interesting.

Vegetarians and vegans, who find consumption of animal products distasteful and objectionable, may not want to read the report.

I did.  It's not just that I am a handspinner who turns wool into yarn and that I'm a person concerned for the viability and continuation of local production of necessary goods.  Never mind folks who avoid sheep products their whole lives and eat beef or lentils and wear polyester fleece and never eat sheep's milk Parmesan or benefit from brush-grazing in orchards and clear-cuts after logging operations.  They may not find sheep products all that essential.  Sorry, I was telling you why the report interested me.  I am from B.C., from Vancouver Island, and I have great affection for the place.  Before going to live in the States I didn't spend time with shepherds so I had fuzzy impressions of the industry at home.  The report brought it into focus, at least what it was twenty years ago.

It shows that I am from a place with a lot of sheep, the highest number of any region in the province.  You could look at the map and see that the next one, the Lower Mainland which is a close second, is in a smaller area; however, I would guess that the total amount of land for farming on Vancouver Island is small too.  We have a mountain range and forest and uninhabited places.  The island is really different from the Fraser delta.

Some of the producers' concerns went over my head.  But I did learn more about them, as well as about the prices in 1990, how terrain in B.C.'s various regions determines the density of flocks (spread out in the dry cold north, dense in the wet temperate coast), the lack of processing facilities, disease management, competition from the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, duty on imports (none on NZ lamb, which was imported the most), low or non-existant profitability for flock-keeping, influences on price, spikes in demand at Christmas and Easter, the high proportion (70 per cent) of farm-gate sales for lamb, weight of sheep which is closely tied to price, very small proportion of rams to ewes, and the small size of the average flock: 32 sheep.

The report covers reasons why supermarkets' and restaurants' buying practices would predispose them to chose imported products: "convenience, availability, and uniformity of supply" along with quality and ease of storage because the items are already processed, vacuum-sealed, and frozen.  I would think that departments stores and boutiques buy imported wool clothing and blankets for the same reasons, sealing and freezing omitted of course.  And cheaper price.

The report shows the consumer side, stating that there is very limited customer demand for the local product at chain store supermarkets.  I would say ditto for wool.  Do B.C. shoppers demand much and ask for changes?  I pick from what's available.  I remember my high school classmates telling me how on a school trip they'd staged a protest to demand that a certain fast food chain stop using non-biodegradable, chlorofluorocarbon-producing packaging and replace it with something that polluted less.  (We all lived in such small remote places that the fast food chain's closest branch was hours away, that's why they had to wait for a school trip to exercise their power as consumers.)  Our science and social studies teachers told us about depletion of the ozone layer, Amazon deforestation, and the links to consumer habits with the implication that we should do something.  No mention of wool going to landfill or our consumer power regarding wool.  I didn't take textiles, but I doubt the teacher presented comparisons of local fibres or cloth samples and imported goods.  I can't even think what commercially-available local goods there would be to show, other than a Cowichan sweater.  While a teen, I was taught by my grandmother to select a B.C. grown apple over a New Zealand apple at the store because it meant earnings for local orchardists in her valley.  She's worried about environmental degradation now but back then she wanted me to buy local food because it was good for the local community's prosperity.  I doubt my grandmother had a local option for picking yarn to make my reindeer sweater and socks for my sock monkey.

The disconnect with local wool must arise from the lack of traceability and local manufacture.  Again, the report notes that the Cowichan sweater industry is the exception since yarn came from a dedicated carding and spinning operation in Duncan, B.C.  There was a facility for processing local wool in 100 Mile House, B.C.  Birkeland in Vancouver did some local wool but mostly U.S. wool.  (Remember the report is dated 1990, Birkeland is now closed and there are mills in Qualicum Bay and Salt Spring Island.  I can't remember the status of the Cowichan mill.)  The bulk of B.C. wool went to a warehouse in Lethbridge, AB, the next province over (and our provinces are large) then crossed two more provinces to reach the province of Ontario for grading, repackaging, and sale to the U.K. and Europe, Japan, and China.  The report doesn't give a number for the province's self-sufficiency in wool but it gives the country's in 1990: 10 per cent.  In other words, Canada produces wool, keeps a little, sells the lion's share to other countries, and buys foreign wool and finished products by the boatload.  At the time of the report, Canada was having trouble selling half its wool as China wasn't buying much, a change from a couple years before when most sold.

The report notes there was wool that never got to market at all: "a considerable amount of wool from small producers is destroyed or discarded because of the lack of opportunity for marketing, or because of the time and effort of getting small amounts of wool to a collection point" (p. 31).  Again, the average flock in B.C. was small, 32 sheep.  Wool takes up a fair bit of room for its weight, even compressed for transport.  (On the weekend, I bought three pounds of local Romney and it fills a pillow slip.)  I'm trying to think how large a truck you'd need for 32 fleeces.


So B.C. wool got ditched because it wasn't economical to bring it to market in small batches or it got sent away because it was economical to transport large batches to countries with established textile manufacturing, economies of scale, skilled labour, and/or low wages.  (With food this is the sort of situation that drives locavores nuts.)  The report states the province lacked an industrial scouring facility to wash wool.  Western Canada generally has based its economy on wholesale extraction of resources (logs, fish, coal) and export of raw or minimally-processed goods.  It's either that or real estate development, services, and retail, not manufacturing.  Well, paper mills, which go back to wood products.  It's the colonial legacy (our colonial past being less than 150 years behind us) and it persists because B.C. has valuable resources, a lot of investment in extraction infrastructure (rail lines, shipping ports), trained labour, and profitable sales.  I'll point out that a good part of the report covers the potential in sheep grazing on clear-cut land for the summer so that farmers can put the pasture to alternative use raising hay, a cash crop.

Now, I have a rudimentary understanding of the way wool is measured and processed and I am going to speculate on further reasons why hardly anyone wanted to use B.C. wool in the province.  According to the report, there was a complaint: "More care is requested in preparing the fleece thoroughly by removing belly wool and tags" as well as the statement that "Much of B.C. wool is reported to have a yield of only 50-56%."  The low yield could be because belly wool and tags were included in the original weight and had to be removed at a loss, or because the fleece contained a lot of lanolin that got washed out (some sheep breeds give more lanolin, some less), or some fleeces were structurally unsound from stressed and ill sheep, or some other quality issue.  The preparation method could also reduce yield, for example, combing out some wool to turn the rest into top.  Let's turn to the type of wool.  The report says nothing about specific sheep breeds, it only mentions in passing that down breed wools are suitable for batts.  Spinning counts are given.  The spinning count numbers measured go from 50-60+ for range wool (sheep pastured on a range) and 48-58 for domestic wool.  Most range and domestic wool (76% and 70% respectively) landed at a spinning count of 56-58.  That corresponds, according to Paula Simmons' Turning Wool Into a Cottage Industry, to a micron count of 24.95-27.84 if you're used to buying wool that way, and probably (going by her list of breeds with their spinning counts) reflects medium wools, a category that includes Columbia, Corriedale, Targhee, Tunis, Clun Forest, and Finnish Landrace.  This spinning count is not going to produce a fine, soft yarn.  And people want soft sweaters that don't itch.  This importance of wool quality to the local market is demonstrated in van der Klift-Tellegen's Knitting from the Netherlands: the market for yarn made of coarse, short-stapled domestic wool collapsed after knitters got more spending money and access to expensive imported yarn they thought was nicer, even though this meant taking earnings away from farm women with fleeces to sell.

The B.C. sheep and wool industry doesn't stand still, I'm sure.  Fibre artists on Vancouver Island are trying to source local fibre, experimenting with flax and holding fleece sales restricted to producers within 100 miles.  New food safety regulations in 2007 restricted lamb processing to government-inspected facilities as seen in this video which includes footage inside a slaughterhouse if you'd rather skip it http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2010/10/07/bc-lamb-saltspring-slaughter-video.html.  Farmers on Salt Spring Island were no longer able to process locally and thus economically, and they reduced the number of sheep there by more than half.

Someone on Saturna Island put money into a government-inspected facility.  The report talked about investment, specifically money to hire "sheep specialists" (technicians) for "technology transfer" (education) to farmers.  Investment is what makes producers able to change an industry and add value to their product and market in their region, or merchants to be able to carry an inventory of new local products.  It's an opt-in situation and costs time, money, and effort.  Consumer demand and promised profit is what makes them want to change.  With local food in B.C., that was spurred by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon's The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, published in the U.S. under the title Plenty.  Not everybody but enough British Columbians committed to buy local food that shops and farms responded.  I came back for a visit and discovered signs in little shops telling how many food miles the bakery's wheat or the cheese had travelled.

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