by Mary Dickinson Bird
What wool producer wouldn’t rejoice at the thought of a secure source of cash up front to support production costs, a guaranteed market for fiber after shearing or processing, and even, perhaps, free labor during the farm’s busiest seasons? Such are the benefits of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a marketing concept that is gradually expanding from food production to fiber farming.
Through traditional food CSAs, consumers purchase shares directly from a farm during late winter or early spring. This cash infusion enables a farmer to face the season’s costs with confidence. Then, as crops mature and are harvested, the consumer’s investment is returned in the form of produce, picked up or delivered, usually weekly.
Maine now has more than 100 food CSAs. Some have branched out from the typical spring-summer-fall vegetables to provide winter root veggies, or year-round meat, dairy, and even frozen or canned produce. Some require or invite shareholders to volunteer on the farm during busy seasons; others do not. Regardless of the variations, CSAs directly connect food producers with consumers who desire healthy, local foods.
The Fiber CSA Spin-Off
The translation of the CSA concept to fiber marketing is a new trend, generating increasing interest among producers and consumers. As with food CSAs, consumers purchase a share, and in return receive either raw fiber, processed batts, roving or yarn.
Maine is at the forefront of this fiber CSA trend, thanks to the efforts of Marty Elkin and Mary Ann Haxton of A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in Sumner. Fiber farms in several other states have also launched CSAs, as has Maine’s Hatchtown Farm (www.hatchtown.com) in Bristol, but still only a handful of fiber CSAs exist nationwide. However, given the growing demand from fiber artists and craftspeople who wish to “spin or knit local,” the CSA marketing option is increasingly appealing to fiber producers.
How Does a Fiber CSA Work?
Fiber CSA shares range in price from $100 to $180. Most are offered for sale before spring or fall shearing. Some producers specify what the shareholder can expect in return. For example, Willow Ridge Farm of Lucas, Iowa, guarantees that every six to eight weeks, its shareholders will receive their choice of either 3 pounds of roving or up to 1800 yards of handspun Shetland. Before each shipment, shareholders are e-mailed information on color choices, with natural, hand-painted or dyed fiber options. Full shareholders receive six deliveries; half shares receive three.
Other producers are less specific about yield, indicating that the number of skeins will vary depending on the size of the clip. Shares at Serenity Sheep Farm of Montana, priced at $150, for example, will provide from seven to 12 skeins (300 yards or 100 grams) of natural-colored sport weight yarn. Hudson Valley Fiber Farm of New York does not provide information on share volume. However, this farm limits the number of shareholders annually to ensure that each gets a “bountiful supply.”
A fiber processor in Michigan, Pufpaff’s, offers a “Spinner’s and Felter’s CSA” at $30 per month, which includes 12 monthly shipments of just under a pound of freshly-carded fiber, source labeling with the animal’s name, and a newsletter. Each month brings something different, including Icelandic, Corriedale, Lincoln, Romney, alpaca, and many other individual or blended fibers.
Some fiber CSAs, including that of A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm, promote their shares via their own farm Web sites. Others take advantage of such Internet marketing communities as Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org) or Etsy (www.etsy.com). While the latter marketing tools require membership and/or percent-of-inventory/sales fees, they provide easy-to-use Web site templates that take the headaches out of Internet marketing for the less Web-savvy producers. Also, some suggest that these sites offer wider visibility for producers who are eager to cultivate a market beyond the local community.
Portrait of a Maine Fiber CSA
Marty Elkin and Mary Ann Haxton began their fiber CSA at A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm in early 2008, after a knitter friend encouraged them to try the idea and helped them get started. They saw this marketing tool as a way to build relationships with fiber consumers and to foster community support for farm women and small organic diversified farming.
As one of the few fiber CSAs in the nation, Elkin and Haxton have had to learn through experimentation. Marketing, a challenge for all small farmers, was their chief hurdle, but with shareholders rejoining the CSA in its second year, and the word spreading among consumers about this reliable local source of quality fiber, the prospects for success and growth are encouraging.
A fiber share at Wrinkle in Thyme costs $100. The shareholder may choose from the farm store’s variety of processed fiber: wool/mohair blended yarn or roving; yarn blended of 80 percent superwash merino and 20 percent angora rabbit; or 100 percent Romney/Corriedale cross and other 100 percent wool yarns and rovings, along with a small amount of DK sock yarn. A felting share is also available, with hand-dyed rovings in small balls, and Thyme Tile patterns and kits.
The volume of fiber for each share varies, depending on whether it has been fully processed into yarn or is offered as roving for spinning or felting.
Shareholders may also select kits and value-added products from the farm store, or may choose a sheep for their share and have it processed according to their spinning, knitting or felting needs.
Registration for one workshop at the farm is included in the price of a share. Shareholders are also invited (but not required) to participate in other farm activities through the year. They may assist with skirting on shearing day and thereafter, may enjoy a picnic lunch where they’ll meet other shareholders, or may participate in a dyeing or felting day at the farm.
This year, A Wrinkle in Thyme planned for sales of up to 15 shares. As of March, shareholders returning from last year had snapped up some of the 15, but more shares were still available.
When asked what they would advise other fiber producers thinking of starting a CSA, Elkin and Haxton are succinct. “This takes creativity,” they say, stressing that it’s critical to define “what makes your farm unique and how you really want to serve your community and your shareholders.”
They acknowledge the challenges involved in launching this new enterprise. “There is definitely a learning curve, and we are just starting, so have much more to learn.”
Given the volume and quality of Maine’s fiber production, along with increasingly educated consumer demand for local fiber, other producers will likely be eager to learn from the CSA experience of A Wrinkle in Thyme Farm, and contribute to the growth of this marketing strategy in Maine.
As of March, plans were underway to offer one or more producer and consumer workshops exploring fiber CSA possibilities, as part of Fiber Maine-ia, Maine’s celebration of the International Year of Natural Fiber. Workshop dates and locations will be announced as information becomes available.
This article originally appeared in The Producer, the newsletter of the Maine Sheep Breeders Association (www.mainesheepbreeders.net). It is reprinted with permission.
About the author: Mary Bird is an educator and fiber artist and Coordinator of Fiber Maine-ia, Maine’s celebration of the International Year of Natural Fiber. Information about Fiber Maine-ia programs is at www.extension.umaine.edu/fibermaine-ia.