Woolens' wonders

Routt County co-op fills niche, keeps small-flock owners alive

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The community came out to Greg Brown's sheep ranch in April to watch the spectacle of hundreds of bleating sheep receiving haircuts.

Over the next month, Routt County Woolens collected thousands of pounds of wool from sheep owners across Routt County, just as it has every May since 1996, when the co-op drove off with its first truckload of wool and returned to town with wool blankets.

That first year, the group bought 6,000 pounds of wool from sheep owners in Routt County and piled it in the back of a truck for the long drive to Minnesota. Woolens partner Jim Ficke drove the wool to Minnesota himself, unloading it at the dock of the Faribault Woolen Mill.

He accompanied the wool for two reasons.

"First, we couldn't afford the shipping," Woolens partner Susan Shoemaker said. "Second, we didn't want our wool to be mixed with wool from other places. We wanted to be sure the blankets were made from (Routt County) wool."

Routt County Woolens, a program for small-flock owners, consists of Ficke, Shoemaker, Greg Brown, Nancy Mucklow and Sara Redmond.

Each year, they pool their money to buy between 6,000 and 9,000 pounds of Routt County Wool and then send it to Minnesota to be washed, spun and turned into wool blankets. Faribault Woolen Mill is a small, family-owned mill and the only place in the United States that processes raw wool from start to finish.

Every spring, Routt County Woolens designs a signature blanket for that year. This year, the design is navy blue with gray stripes, a design they call "True Blue."

The blankets are numbered, Shoemaker said. "Once they are gone, that's it. They're a collectors' item."

Making blankets from raw wool is part of a trend called "value-added agriculture," popular with owners of smaller ranches and farms. Value-added agriculture converts agricultural outputs, such as wool, into products of greater value. By creating a finished product with their agricultural output, farmers and ranchers increase awareness of their commodity and increase their chances of making a living.

It's also an important way for woolgrowers in Routt County to survive within the economic climate of a tourist economy.

"We wouldn't be able to do this in Kansas. Steamboat is a niche market," Shoemaker said. People will buy Routt County Woolens blankets simply because they were made in Steamboat.

Growth in tourism and the ski industry has led to high property taxes and disappearing agricultural land in Routt County, according to the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office's 1998 Annual Report. But Shoemaker and other members of Routt County Woolens realized that agriculture is part of Steamboat's Western heritage appeal.

"People may not want to raise sheep themselves, but they want to see sheep on the landscape," Shoemaker said.

Every year, Routt County Woolens hosts a "Shepherds Reception" during the late fall where they showcase and sell their products at the Depot Art Center. This year, they invited another value-added agricultural enterprise, Yampa Valley Beef, to an all-day event scheduled for Friday.

Yampa Valley Beef markets locally raised beef to area restaurants, residents and tourists.

At Friday's event, Yampa Valley Beef will sell its new gift boxes, which include summer sausage, and a history book about ranching in the Yampa Valley by Elaine Gay.

The event also will feature entertainment and other products.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Becky Lamb will play the piano. Steamboat Coffee Roasters will supply free coffee throughout the day, and Steamboat Floral will have holiday arrangements on sale. Author Jill Murphy Long will be signing her books from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.

From 5 to 7 p.m., Mary Martin Stockdale will play piano and have her CDs available for purchase. Wine and cheese will be served in the evening.

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