Wool warehouse celebrate 25 yearsWritten by Jennifer Womack
According to Center of the Nation Wool General Manager Larry Prager, as much as 70 percent of the wool that makes its way through the wool warehouse annually is sold to overseas customers. It’s not a trend Prager or the company’s board of directors envisioned when they signed their Articles of Incorporation on Feb. 14, 1984.
It is, however, a change that the company’s board of directors has embraced in a proactive manner. Over the past 25 years over $100 million amounting to about 100 million pounds of wool has passed through what has become the largest wool warehouse in the nation. Around 1,800 sheep producers receive a check from the company for their wool every year. The company’s customers have addresses ranging from Idaho to North Dakota and from Colorado to Montana.
“We’re in business to get these folks an honest paycheck for their wool,” says Prager. “That’s a responsibility. We’re the link between greasy wool and leveraging that wool into the market to bring as much for it as we can.”
Upon arriving at the warehouse, wool is core tested with samples sent to a Denver, Colo. laboratory where its quality is determined. It’s those objective, scientific findings that serve as the marketing base and allow the wool to be sold in unison with other wool of similar quality. With a few exceptions, wool is marketed in the bales it’s in when it arrives in Belle Fourche. Sheep producers are responsible for ensuring the best quality possible on shearing day to maximize their profits at market.
Nation Center Wool Pool was launched in Montana in 1960, says Prager. A search for a warehouse facility eventually landed the entity in Belle Fourche in partnership with the local farmers’ cooperative.
When Prager joined the company, then making the transition to the present day Center of the Nation Wool structure, his first order of business was selling shares. “When I came here it was Farmer Ranchers Wool,” says Prager, who left his family’s Douglas-area ranch for the new job. He wasn’t new to ranching or the sheep and wool industries, having grown up on a ranch and worked his way through college shearing sheep.
“We sold that original stock to purchase the warehouse,” recalls Prager of something he says wasn’t an easy task. “By the time you go through stock registration and the things you have to do to become registered to sell stock, it was a challenging process. I, with the help of the directors, was the stock salesman.”
The spring blizzard of 1984 didn’t make Prager’s job any easier. “Our plan was that we’d be selling stock about the same time as the wool checks were coming through,” he recalls. “About that same time the blizzard came and at that time we’d only sold a fraction of what we needed to.”
Over the next two years the stock was held and an original 93 investors served as the foundation for the new company, says Prager. A portion of those, including Hulett-area rancher Jw Nuckolls, make up the entity’s Board of Directors to this day.
“It’s a private corporation and the stockholders were all active sheepmen at one time or another,” says Prager, “and the board of directors remain active in the sheep industry.” Until declining sheep numbers forced its closure in 1989, Prager says the company maintained a wool warehouse in Casper. Today the company has facilities in Billings, Mont. and Belle Fourche.
Wool was being packed in burlap bags and much of it was still destined for the East Coast via shipment on the nation’s railways. Simultaneous to Center of the Nation Wool’s formation, Prager says the export market to Mexico was growing. Mexico’s market was merely the first sign of what was to become a largely overseas customer base.
“Prior to that time we were tying fleeces and putting them in the traditional wool bags,” he says. Attending the American Sheep Industry Association convention, he recalls, “Before we left the decision was made that we were buying a container load of square presses. That’s the direction our directors have continued to go, leading the charge for wool quality.”
Packaging wool in large square nylon bales allowed for more efficient shipment in containers. Today Prager says the wool leaves the warehouse in ocean containers weighing between 35,000 and 44,000 pounds each. Efficiency is key in packaging the containers. High quality bales are extremely important to maximize the value of the costly transportation process.
“Had we not made the changes we would not be on the drawing board today as far as exporting wool,” says Prager. Of range wools today, he says, “The standard is bellies out, square packs and some degree of preparation for shipment around the world. I wouldn’t say we were ahead of our time, but it’s something that had to be done.”
Prager explains, “In the last 10 years we’ve seen the decline of textile mills on the East Coast. All of the wool used to go to the East Cost on the rail. Then it became truck freight and there have been years that 70 percent of our wool left here in ocean containers.”
Early May about a third of the 2009 clip had made its way to the warehouse. Prager says shearing across the region is running behind schedule as a result of weather conditions. In the meantime, however, there’s been a renewed interest in the wool market. While prices are below those seen the past two years, he says the product is beginning to move again. “Confidence is creeping back into our market,” he says.
“I’ve always wondered that if Center of the Nation Wool wasn’t here what other marketing enterprise would fill our place,” says Prager. “We’d have more country buyers and growers would have lost their influence in this part of the market.”