Community Agriculture Alliance: From baa to blankets

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It's a funny thing, these woolly wonderful animals - sheep. They produce wool for Routt County Woolens, the locally grown wool blanket company (Blankets - Ahhh - warm and snuggly!). The sheep in our beautiful Yampa Valley grow incredibly clean wool, thanks in part to the record amounts of snowfall we enjoy. These sheep also are high-quality wool producers, because they are raised and cared for by talented, hard-working and knowledgeable ranchers.

So, how did we ever get interested in the wool blanket business here in the beautiful and snowy mountains of Northwest Colorado? In our valley, there is a long history of pure clean wool, and in the early years, Routt County's reputation for this prized wool helped to bring ranchers together to pool their wool for sale. By "pooling" their wool, they were able to get a better wool price for large and small producers, and all would benefit by making sure there was a market as well as a meaningful quantity of "the good stuff" from our local wool crop.

Back in the 1990s, a group of savvy woolgrowers saw the value of this wool, and with the growth in tourism and interest in our "real" Western town, they wondered whether those who visit our valley would be excited to have a locally grown souvenir from the Steamboat ranchers. With this in mind, the Routt County Woolgrowers set about obtaining a USDA grant (with the help of the local Extension Office) to measure the feasibility of marketing a locally grown wool blanket to our local visitors. This venture was judged a success when the small run of blankets sold out almost before they hit the shelves of F.M. Light and Sons.

With that information in hand, the Woolgrowers offered the idea and venture to any who might be willing to take the risk and go with it. A group of six "venturers" took the ram by the horns, formed a company and marketed the first Routt County Woolens locally grown wool blanket in 1997. The blanket was Champagne Powder TM white with hunter stripes and was snapped up by local shoppers and tourists. So began the adventure for the locally grown wool blanket company, Routt County Woolens.

Fast forward to 2008, and you'll see a company that has continued to expand the interest for locally grown wool. This demand helps promote open space as sheep graze our rangelands, pastures and meadows. Although sheep and wool are not the sole piece of local land preservation, Routt County Woolens does offer the public an opportunity to join with others in preserving a piece of the West by enjoying and sharing a locally grown renewable resource. We like to think that we are helping to preserve the local agricultural way of life, in part by paying ranchers a premium for their locally grown clean wool and also by making an educational impact on many of our visitors to this fine valley.

So as you begin this holiday season, thankful for the scenic vistas we enjoy, we'd like to thank our local "fan base" for your continuing interest in local products, from baa to blankets, to potholders, oven mitts and Woolly LoofahsTM and beyond. Thanks for your local support of sustainable products

Nancy Mucklow is the co-owner of Routt County Woolens.

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