Valley Bounty: Fibers for farmers: Western Massachusetts Fibershed turns local ‘throw away’ wool into fertilizer pellets

Peggy Hart, left, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Falls, and Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unload bags of waste wool Goodchild is donating to Western Massachusetts. Fibershed to make into wool pellets.

Peggy Hart, left, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Falls, and Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unload bags of waste wool Goodchild is donating to Western Massachusetts. Fibershed to make into wool pellets. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Peggy Hart, left, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Falls, and Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unload bags of waste wool Goodchild is donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets.

Peggy Hart, left, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Falls, and Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unload bags of waste wool Goodchild is donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Peggy Hart, left, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Falls, and Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unload bags of waste wool Goodchild is donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets.

Peggy Hart, left, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Falls, and Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unload bags of waste wool Goodchild is donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Bags of waste wool being donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets. The pellets are then used for fertilization and water retention.

Bags of waste wool being donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets. The pellets are then used for fertilization and water retention. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Wool from Western Mass Fibershed at Peggy Hart’s home in Shelburne.

Wool from Western Mass Fibershed at Peggy Hart’s home in Shelburne. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Peggy Hart holds wool pellets used for fertilization and water retention at her home in Shelburne.

Peggy Hart holds wool pellets used for fertilization and water retention at her home in Shelburne. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unloads bags of waste wool she is donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets. “I think it is a great project, otherwise the wool literally gets thrown away in the woods,” Goodchild said.

Barbara Goodchild, of Barberic Farm in Shelburne, unloads bags of waste wool she is donating to Western Mass Fibershed to make into wool pellets. “I think it is a great project, otherwise the wool literally gets thrown away in the woods,” Goodchild said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Peggy Hart, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Fall, holds wool pellets used for fertilization and water retention.

Peggy Hart, an organizer for Western Mass Fibershed and owner of Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Fall, holds wool pellets used for fertilization and water retention. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 05-10-2024 2:58 PM

Local wool for your wardrobe … and for your garden?

That’s the idea behind a new project from Western Massachusetts Fibershed, an organization working to strengthen our local fiber economy, right alongside our local food economy.

Peggy Hart is a core organizer for the group, and a weaver by trade. She owns Bedfellow Blankets in Shelburne Falls, where she uses industrial looms to create beautiful textiles, many of them made with wool from farms in the Northeast. Her work happens at the end of the supply chain, which gives her an intimate view of how the whole thing functions — or sometimes doesn’t.

Farms in the Valley and Berkshires still produce a fair amount of sheep’s wool — over 21,000 pounds per year, according to the most recent census of agriculture. Some of this wool is processed into ready-to-use yarn, fleece, roving, and other materials for crafters to knit, spin or felt. But a lot of it, whether it’s just not quite high quality enough for artisanal purposes, or whether it’s a byproduct of meat production, doesn’t have much of a market. This means that a lot of locally produced wool is at risk of going to waste.

On top of that, commercial-scale infrastructure for cleaning and processing wool has become scarce. Wool mills in Putney, Vermont, (Green Mountain Spinnery) and one that recently opened in Easthampton (Alchemy Fiber Mill) are rare examples of local facilities, as is Hart’s weaving operation at Bedfellow Blankets. Wool can make the journey from fleece to fabric within the region, but the supply chain is small and fragile.

That’s a shame, according to Hart, because when fabric performance and social and environmental costs are considered, wool has a lot going for it. “Wool is warmer than synthetics,” she says, “and it keeps you warm even if it’s wet. It’s durable. It wicks away moisture and sweat. It’s flame-resistant. And it’s biodegradable, which is a huge reason why it’s more sustainable. You can recycle wool responsibly, but not really a polyester fleece.”

With that in mind, Western Massachusetts Fibershed is trying to lay the groundwork for a textile economy that supports local farmers and makes wool and other local fibers a viable option for crafters and artisans. Part of that is expanding infrastructure and access to equipment, but at its core, their work is about connecting people.

A watershed collects all the surface water in a particular region. Similarly, the national organization Fibershed, of which Western Massachusetts Fibershed is a chapter, collects and organizes farmers, business owners and community members who share their vision. Other organizations, like CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), have supported this work too, but Western Mass Fibershed has been a leader, organizing locally and together with other Fibershed chapters.

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One of Western Massachusetts Fibershed’s biggest current projects is buying wool from small farms, pooling it, and sending it through the local processing chain to make yarn and blankets. Hart first got involved with Fibershed when earlier organizers asked her to weave these blankets at her Shelburne Falls shop. Yarn and blankets are currently for sale at their website, westernmassfibershed.org.

Still, “there’s always some wool that’s too dirty, matted, or short to use for yarn or fabrics,” says Hart. “At the national level, one Fibershed working group has been discussing what we can do with this ‘waste’ wool. The idea that grabbed the most attention was making wool fertilizer pellets.”

This idea makes sense for a lot of reasons. For one, pelletizing wool is simple. It doesn’t need to be washed or sorted, just shredded and compressed into pellets. And while it’s not a lucrative business on its own, farmers can earn some extra cash from material they’d otherwise throw away.

Meanwhile, it turns out wool is great for garden soil. By weight it’s about half carbon and one-fifth nitrogen, making it a potent source of fertility that releases slowly as it breaks down. Mixing in pellets also aerates soil, and, thanks to wool’s ability to absorb water, helps it retain moisture longer in the root zone.

To put this idea into practice, Western Massachusetts Fibershed secured three grants to buy machinery. The organization will buy local wool to make and sell wool pellets, and they will custom-process wool for local farms to take back and sell themselves.

“We hope to be able to pay farmers a dollar per pound for their wool,” Hart says. “For most farms that will come close to covering the cost of shearing, depending on the size of their flock.”

The group is still waiting on one piece of equipment, but hopes to start selling wool pellet fertilizer at the annual Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Festival, held Memorial Day weekend at the Cummington Fairgrounds. Hart will also be tabling for Fibershed at the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale in Shelburne Falls on Saturday May 11, and encourages anyone interested in connecting with the group to visit her there or contact them via email at westernmassfibershed@gmail.com.

Western Massachusetts Fibershed is an all-volunteer run organization structured around quarterly meetings and working groups focused on specific tasks, like publicizing the organization, coordinating events, and special projects like the wool pelletizing idea. Quarterly meetings are held in-person at rotating locations and include updates and time for socializing and skill-sharing.

“Overall, we’re trying to create a sense of community,” says Hart, “because we know that’s what people want.”

Western Massachusetts has a vibrant local food economy, in large part because people make an effort to support it. Western Massachusetts Fibershed is betting that support will extend to the local fiber economy too. After all, local farms are at the root of both.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms growing food, fiber, flowers and more, visit buylocalfood.org.