Jim Brandt among major players in Ohio’s sheep and wool industry
By Elaine Schweller-Snyder
ANNA — He may not have been born in a stable, but Jim Brandt of Anna is a modern day shepherd. Since he was a child, he has been surrounded by sheep on the family farm near Anna, in Shelby County, and now serves as president of the Mid-States Wool Growers Association, a market leader in the wool industry.
Owned by more than 6,000 sheep producers in 25 states from Nebraska to the East Coast, the Association is one of the largest wool cooperatives in the United States. Serving the American sheep industry since 1918, the organization was begun by sheep producers looking for ways to get the best price possible for their wool.
First known as the Tri-State Wool Growers, the members marketed more than 2 million pounds of wool in 1919, their second year of existence. By 1956, they had become the Ohio Wool Growers Cooperative Association and were part of a wool warehouse pool that controlled the largest volume of wool marketing in the country.
In 1974, the Ohio Wool Growers Cooperative and the Midwest Wool Marketing Cooperative, which was organized in 1931 in Kansas City, Kansas, merged to form the Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative. Today, the group produces about 1.8 million pounds of wool annually, a small amount in comparison to their peak output of four million pounds in the 1990’s.
Brandt, who serves as president of the organization, has been on the 10-member board of directors for 25 years. Mid-States has a warehouse in Canal Winchester where the wool is sent to be graded. A second warehouse in Hutchinson, Kan., gathers wool from the western states.
“We have one of the most modern grading systems in the United States or quite possibly the world,” said Brandt. “We employ one grader who examines on average 1,500 pounds a day. The American Sheep Association has grading schools, but most people in the sheep industry just grow up around it; experience is
the best teacher.”
“Coarser wool is used for carpet and blankets and the better grades are used for fine clothing like knitted sweaters and suits, so the grading of the wool is very important,” he continued. “We find that the states east of the Mississippi produce very little of the better wool. The higher grades of wool are found west of the Mississippi.”
From Canal Winchester, the wool is sent to Texas or North Carolina to be shipped to processing plants. Almost all of the wool produced in the United States today is exported to overseas plants where the raw product is made into consumer goods like clothing, blankets, and carpeting. Where there once were 60 such plants in America, today there may be one or two. As with many goods, most production is being done in China, which then exports the goods all over the world, including back to the U.S.
“We are not the largest supplier of wool by any
means,” said Brandt. “The leading wool producing countries in the world are Australia and New Zealand, so they set pricing and control the market. Wool from the United States probably accounts for less than one-tenth of Australia’s output. We are very small.”
“The Australian wool is more expensive but also much better quality than what we can produce in the United States,” said Brandt. “Their sheep graze outside year round; they have purer pastures with less dirt and pollution. Their wool is so clean.”
Diversity has helped the Mid-States Association manage to profit in a fluctuating market. They began a supply business in 1956 that generates as much as $2 million a year. They also sell a small clothing line on the website and at booths at the Ohio State Fair and the North American Livestock Show in Louisville.
“Like anything, the wool market has had its ups and downs,” said Brandt. “We had record sales in 2010 and 2011, due to a tighter cotton crop and lower wool volumes being produced, but the world financial struggles of 2012 have negatively impacted the market, keeping wool values down.”
The rise of synthetic fibers has affected wool production, but another factor is the durability of wool itself. Wool clothing has a long life; it basically lasts forever. To expand the market, producers are now developing new uses for wool. For example, the U.S. Armed Forces are experimenting with wool t-shirts and socks to control dampness and warmth. “Technology has made us a better marketer of our product,” said Brandt. “New processes, such as washing without chemicals, have made wool softer and less scratchy.”
The bottom line is that the quality of the wool dictates price. Wool that is clean and three inches in length will yield the most money. Any wool that is burry, tender, or yellowish will not sell well. The same can be said for black or any wool
contaminated by hair.
Part of the work of the Mid-States Association is to educate their members about improving the quality of their product. Reference materials they provide include tips on ewe nutrition and health, the cleanliness of the barn on shearing day, and the bagging of the fleece.
Most farmers only shear their sheep once a year. This provides the three-inch staple required by the largest number of mills. It is recommended that pastures where sheep graze be free of weeds, cockle burr, or seed heads as these will cling to the fleece and lower its value.
The health of the ewe is also very important to produce good quality fleece. A fever at lambing can place a break in the fiber. The best solution is to shear the ewes before lambing.
Farmers are now using clean plastic wool bags or pouches for collecting the fleece instead of the traditional jute bags. Plastic feed sacks are not recommended as these tend to hold moisture. Sheep should always be dry when sheared since wet wool is not marketable. Even a little dampness can cause the fleece to turn yellow or mildew.
The Brandt farm, the largest and one of only a handful of sheep farms in Shelby County, is a family operation. Brandt and his wife Jill live just a few miles down the road from the farm where he
grew up and where his mother still lives.
“The sheep business has been good to our family,” said Brandt. “It put us through college and my children, too.”
Brandt’s three grown children were active in 4-H and FFA and showed lambs at the fair. Now grandchildren are getting involved in the same activities.
Brandt taught vo-ag classes at Talawanda and the Upper Valley JVS and recently retired from Hartzell Fan in Piqua after 23 years. He now has more time to shear and care for his sheep and remarked that his father kept shearing well into his 80’s.
“Shearing itself is an art,” said Brandt, and one can attest to that fact while watching this experienced shearer gently handle a 175-pound ewe with ease. Brandt uses the Australian method of shearing, which results in the wool coming off the ewe in one piece. Wrestling with the animals puts a lot of pressure on the knees and hips, but Brandt tries not to overdo. He usually shears five or six sheep in an hour.
“I started shearing sheep when I was 14 or 15,” said Brandt. “When my dad was living, we had as many as 350 ewes on the farm. Now we have 70, Shropshire and Southdown, but I also handle other farmers’ wool. I personally handle 6,000–7,000 pounds each year.”
A shepherd’s flock is always changing as each ewe produces one or two lambs a year. Some of the lambs are sent to market, especially around Easter when there is demand from the Jewish and Greek populations. The productive years for most adult ewes are from ages 2 to 6, then they too are sent to market.
“Wool is really just a small part of the sheep operation for most farmers,” said Brandt. “The meat market is definitely more profitable, to the point where some even discard the fleece because they feel it is more work than it is worth. I can’t predict what the next 20 years will bring in the wool industry worldwide, but personally I just enjoy shearing sheep.”
Elaine Schweller-Snyder writes for the
Sidney Daily News.