Young Farmers and Ranchers tour explores wool warehouse in South DakotaWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Belle Fourche, S.D. – Larry Prager grew up in central Wyoming and sheared sheep through high school and college.
“I paid for a bunch of cows after I got out of college. At that time, I could buy a cow every other day with cash from shearing sheep,” he explained to the Joint Wyoming and South Dakota Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers Conference tour participants on Jan. 23.
Conference attendees took tours through a number of South Dakota landmarks, including the Center of the Nation Wool warehouse, which Prager now manages.
Center of the Nation Wool is a private company that began in Montana as a marketing association in 1960.
“The sheep ranchers put a band together, and each one was going to sell his wool based on its own quality and merit,” Prager said.
In 1984, the association changed from a cooperative to a private company, and there are currently about 100 stockholders spread out primarily through eastern Montana, western South Dakota and Wyoming.
“Stockholders are mostly part of the original families that started the pool. There are some newcomers, but there is also a lot of tradition,” he explained.
Producers in the region begin shearing sheep at the beginning of the year and continue through May or June. Wool is then taken to the warehouse where it is evaluated for color, style, quality, length, uniformity, contamination, genetics and growing environment.
Based on how the wool scores, it is then sold to wool processors, who look for specific wool characteristics, depending on their market products.
“The first thing the processor does is scour or wash the wool,” described Prager. “The next thing they do is card it, which aligns the fibers, takes out vegetable matter and gets it ready for spinning.”
If the wool is high quality, it will then be combed, further aligning the fibers and creating what is known as top.
“Most of the people we sell wool to are known as top makers,” he noted.
Top is spun into yarn and then woven or knitted into garments to be sold as retail items.
Wool that does not qualify for top is scoured and carded but not combed. It goes strait to spinning and weaving before it is felted.
“We see that wool in most outerwear garments,” Prager remarked.
Top wool is made into suits or sports jackets, whereas course wool might be made into something like a stadium blanket, and there are many different products in between. During the tour, participants were able to compare the differences between many of these products, including a set of wool bibs and various wool vests.
“We supply over half of the fiber requirements for the U.S. armed forces dress military uniforms,” mentioned Prager, sharing a pair of 100 percent wool suit pants with the group.
Passing around multiple pairs of socks for the tour group to see, Prager stated, “As America gets more casual, we don’t wear sports coats or suits as much. But, if this sock trend continues to grow, we won’t have enough wool to make socks. We’re going to need more sheep.”
Specialty sports socks are becoming more popular in the U.S., ranging in wool quality and fiber blends. Thanks to the Australian introduction of superwash, wool socks have also become more consumer-friendly.
“Superwash is a chlorine bath that basically burns off the microscopic scales from each fiber a little bit and coats the fibers with a polymer. That way, we can run them through the washer and dryer and still have the same material that we started with,” he remarked.
Prager explained that his role is to ensure that no matter what products are made, each processor gets exactly the wool they need in terms of coarseness, color, quality or any measurement they are seeking.
“When it comes to marketing, the most important thing is to make sure the customer gets what they need. The second part is, no matter what kind of business relationship we are going to establish, we always assume it’s going to be a long-term relationship,” he stated.
It’s impossible to tell how people are connected to each other or when they might appear again in the same, or different, context.
“I have one guy I buy wool from in southern Utah, and his brother runs sheep down in Nebraska,” he illustrated as an example, reiterating that it never hurts to build honest and positive relationships with everybody.
“I market wool for about 1,700 producers. There are all different kinds of wool and all different kinds of people,” he remarked. “At the end of the day, we are going to send these people a wool check. It’s a fascinating business, and it’s a great business.”