Wyoming agriculture producers raise and lots of cows and sheep… but they’re mostly sold out of state, where they’re processed and sold as beef and lamb, making big money for outside businesses. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez reports that state agriculture agencies are now encouraging ag producers of all kinds to add-value to the products they already have to keep their businesses competitive, and circulate the money in Wyoming.
REBECCA MARTINEZ: Bessie Zeller and her late husband Clarence took over his father’s Lovell beekeeping operation in the mid-1940s.
BESSIE ZELLER: My oldest son was born in 44 and when he was 7 years old he had really bad eyes. And the eye doctor told me if I’d take all the sugar away from him he wouldn’t need his glasses anymore. And so I quit using any sugar, and made up my own recipes and cooked strictly with honey and within a couple of years he didn’t wear the glasses anymore and he is, now, what, about 69? And he still doesn’t wear glasses.
MARTINEZ: Zeller started baking and making candies, with honey as the sole sweetener. The retail honey business wasn’t making enough to employ her sons, so they branched out. In 1976, she and her sons started Queen Bee Gardens Gourmet and Honey Candies.
ZELLER: And we started going to trade shows where we could get it out in front of the public and let them sample it. And now we sell our candy to mostly health food stores. Forty-eight states we sell our candy to.
MARTINEZ: She says Queen Bee employees five people, plus some of her children and grandchildren, and sales increase by about 7-percent each year.
This is the kind of business-model state agencies are working hard to promote among Wyoming producers, with grants and research and marketing assistance. Derrel Carruth of the Wyoming USDA Rural Development Office says producers who are willing to further their product themselves stand to increase their profit rather than if they simply sell the raw materials wholesale.
DERREL CARRUTH: I have not seen any producer that has no improved their income potential by adding another source of income to their operation.
MARTINEZ: Carruth says expanding businesses this way diversifies Wyoming’s ag industry, and it can create jobs and inject more money into local economies. His office works to connect ag producers in the state with federal USDA grants to research business plans and find start-up and expansion capital.
(WOOL MILL AMBI)
A few years ago, crafters and entrepreneurs Karen Hostetler and Valerie Spanos had a hard time finding local wool to knit with. Hostetler says that’s when they learned most sheep ranchers shear and sell their wool to buyers out of the state – often out of the country.
KAREN HOSTETLER: You couldn’t just buy a skein of yarn from wool that was grown from your neighbors down the street. So it became really important that we were going to help sustain ranches in our state first.
MARTINEZ: With the help of USDA research grants, Mountain Meadow Wool Mill is now five-years old, and the only textile mill in Wyoming. The Buffalo facility is now full of enormous second-hand machines that wash, dry and spin wool into yarns of all sizes. Employees and family members dye the wool by hand.
HOSTETLER: Four years ago we had made maybe 12 skeins of yarn. And now we’re processing probably 12-15-thousand pounds of raw wool a year.
MARTINEZ: Hoestetler says the business has grown steadily. Some fiber producers pay for the mill to service their wool, but most of Mountain Meadow’s business comes from selling Wyoming-made yarn throughout the state and most of the United States. Hoestetler says the “Slow Food” and “Buy Local” movements have drawn a solid customer base.
HOSTETLER: That’s been huge. They wanna know it’s made in America. And the idea that we actually can trace that yarn all the way back to the ranch where it was raise on, you know, that’s really big.
MARTINEZ: Traced to the ranch? I had to check that out, so I examined some of the products in the mill’s show room.
(standup in showroom)
MARTINEZ: Alright I’m taking a look at a pair of red and brown striped socks… Yep, there is is. “Grown on the Camino Kid Ranch. Made in Buffalo, Wyoming, USA.”
MARTINEZ: Peter John Camino grew those socks on his ranch about 8 miles south of town. He used to sell his wool to wholesale buyers out of state… But the return on his wool used to fluctuate with the market, making a small profit, if any. With Mountain Meadow Wool Mill, Camino makes a premium when his wool is spun and turned into yarn, socks, blankets or hoodies and THEN sold. That’s the value-added part.
PETER JOHN CAMINO: The main thing is the dollar. We don’t get paid right away. As they process the wool, we get paid. But we get paid a very nice premium for processed wool, and it works out really good… really, really good.
MARTINEZ: Camino says he has to take extra-good care of the wool on and off the sheep, but he can make 30-to-40-percent above market value through Mountain Meadow Wool, so it’s worth his time.
Derrel Carruth, of Wyoming’s USDA Rural Development Office loves stories like these, but acknowledges that value-added operations mean more work, more expense, more networking. It’s not for everyone.
CARRUTH: I think that Wyoming Farmers and Ranchers are pretty independent. And it takes a lot of thought to jump into something different than what they have grown up with or been accustomed to doing.
MARTINEZ: But despite the fact that Wyoming has a sparse population, limited infrastructure and a short growing season, more producers are applying for grants to add value their businesses. Groups like the Wyoming Business Counsel and the Triple Crown Commodities Cooperative are helping Wyoming producers market to customers in the state, and they continue trying to make names for themselves around the country.
For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.