Md. sheep breeders suspend annual wool pool

Managing Editor

(May 9, 2017) With the decision made earlier this year by the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association to suspend its annual Wool Pool, at least for this year, the group has issued a call to breeders to help the association determine how to best help members market their wool.
This year would have marked the 60th year for the pool, traditionally held in mid-June at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.
Started in 1956, the pool established a commercial market for MSBA members who lacked other outlets for their wool and was meant to build volume that would attract buyers and get a better price than selling small amounts privately.
“The key was to run the pool and sort and package the wool in a way that would help us get better prices from the buyers,” said Dr. Richard Barczewski, who was manager of the pool for 20 years.
Wool brought to the pool was graded, sorted by type and packaged so that larger quantities of similar types of wool were sold to a buyer who could utilize all those types of wool. In some cases, Barczewski said the bigger buyers would blend various types of wool together to obtain a particular type of cloth that could be made from those blends.
“It’s been something that MSBA has been very proud of for a long time,” said Lee Langstaff, MSBA president. “Over time we developed a reputation for the kinds of wool we had.”
At it’s peak, the pool brought in about 125,000 pounds of wool in a two-day event. In more recent years, the pool has been reduced to one day bringing in between 25,000 and 30,000 pounds. Along with providing breeders with some selling power, breeders said the pool was a great way to educate breeders about improving wool quality, along with animal health and other issues.
“People would go through the line and talk with Extension staff,” David Greene,  breeder and retired University of Maryland Extension sheep specialist. “The educational component was a tremendous benefit for the sheep industry in the state.”
Greene and Barczewski also said they enjoyed the fellowship with breeders that came with running the pool. “You develop some real connections with folks when you know you are going to see them every year (and write them a check once a year to boot,)” Barczewski wrote in an e-mail to The Delmarva Farmer. “There were also a good group of volunteers who came out to help with the pool but just like everything else, the volunteers were getting older and the work unfortunately wasn’t getting any easier.”
A number of factors, led to the pool’s decline, breeders said. Prices for the wool has remained relatively static for decades while the cost of shearing has continually increased. While sheep numbers in Maryland have remained fairly steady for the past 25 to 30 years, there are more smaller flocks and many of them are focused on direct marketing specialty wools to their own customer base, Langstaff said. Another factor, though it’s difficult to put a number on, is a shift of breeders to breeds of hair sheep that are not sheared, further reducing the amount of wool coming each year.
Fewer breeders were bringing wool to the pool, Langstaff said, and the pool was benefitting fewer and fewer of the association members. Barczewski said in the years he managed the pool, the number of producers who brought wool to the pool went from over 125 to around 50.
Langstaff said at last yea’rs pool, two producers brought one-third of the wool that was bought and two thirds of the wool bought came from eight producers.
“Things were just getting a little not quite right,” she said.
But the amount of wool in the last few years was rising some to more than 30,000 pounds, said Emily Chamelin, who had been the pool manager until stepping down this year. She said the biggest issue facing the pool’s viability was getting the skilled workforce to operate and maintain the equipment to package the wool for shipment.
“Even just baling the wool itself is an extremely taxing job,” Chamelin said. “These wool presses, you have to know what you’re doing or it’s dangerous.” In recent years, she said the association was having to pay people to operate the equipment in order to pull off the pool.
With Chamelin stepping away from the pool and no one else in MSBA stepping up to take over, Langstaff said the board made the tough decision to not have a pool this year and evaluate if there is a better way to serve its membership.
“It’s forced us to look at doing something different,” Langstaff said. “How can we adapt to what the needs are and serve our members? This is a suspension, not necessarily the end of the wool pool. My feeling is we just need to watch and wait and collect data on what happens this year.”
In the MSBA spring newsletter, Langstaff issued an open invitation to members to engage in investigating the needs of wool producers in connecting with buyers and what MSBA’s role should be moving forward.
With no Maryland Wool Pool this year, there are at least five pools still operating in Pennsylvania and the two wool presses owned by the MSBA will be available for rent for individual producers in good standing with the group who can demonstrate they know how to run the press safely. 
Chamelin, who shears sheep throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond, recently became a buyer for Groenewald Wool and Fur Company and said she’ll be able to buy wool off the farm. “I can help simplify this process by picking up your wool, weighing it and cutting you a check on the spot if necessary,” Chamelin wrote in the group’s newsletter.
While MSBA members consider reviving the pool or focusing on other alternatives for marketing wool in the future, Greene has started a project marking the history of the pool and is asking breeders with photos and information from old pools to contact him. He said he started raising sheep in 1956, the same year as the first pool, which took place at a livestock sale barn in West Friendship, Md., and hopes to preserve its history in a book.