SALT LAKE CITY, Utah. — When COVID-19 swept into the United States last year, the domestic supply chain for food and all manner of products took a tectonic hit, underscoring just how vulnerable the country is when it comes to getting goods to market.
Some of those hardest hit were ranchers and farmers who struggled to either find buyers for meat, dairy or produce, or get their actual product processed, the Deseret News reported.
Since then, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has been on a mission to correct that trajectory, scoring a big win in April with the opening of the nation’s only commercial wool testing laboratory — Wasatch Wool Laboratories in Midvale.
“One of the Department of Agriculture’s priorities right now is developing agricultural and food processing infrastructure. It’s important for us to support all aspects of infrastructure that assist our producers in preparing their products to be marketed to the public,” said the agency’s commissioner, Craig W. Buttars.
The wool industry in Utah is big business. The state is the fourth-largest producer of wool in the nation, shearing a little more than 2.1 million pounds in 2019 alone — accounting for about 10% of the nation’s total wool production. In 2019, the value of that wool was nearly $4.5 million.
Wool is naturally environmentally friendly; it’s a renewable resource, 100% biodegradable, can last for hundreds of years (think antique rugs), and even cleans the air because it can absorb volatile organic compounds from materials around it.
It’s used in a variety of products — it takes 219 yards of wool to make a single baseball — and Prince Philip, with a nod to his environmental streak, was reportedly buried in a $1,200 casket made from wool.
But after a wool testing lab closed last year in Colorado, U.S. producers had to ship their product overseas — typically New Zealand — to get quality tested.
Sierra Nelson, executive director of the Utah Wool Growers Association, said the opening of the Utah lab will make U.S. wool that much more eco-friendly.
“Adding this will allow us to take an environmentally friendly product and make it even more sustainable by reducing the product’s carbon footprint by not having to send it overseas for testing. Each class of wool is excellent for something specific; there are different uses for different products,” she said. “Wool testing allows you to target your sales to specific audiences. For example, coarse wool for outer layers and fine wool for luxury goods.”
The advent of the lab was made possible with an investment from GRIP6, a Salt Lake City manufacturing company founded by a father of five with an intense desire to produce goods that are functional, high quality, and made in the United States.
On the company’s website, founder BJ Minson describes his victory of crafting a well-made belt and a Kickstarter campaign with no marketing that resulted in an order for 10,000 belts.
As he shopped U.S. manufacturers to complete the order, he said their quoted prices were incredibly high, but they offered advice on how to access the much more “affordable” Chinese manufacturing market.
Instead, vowing not to compromise, he invested in his own manufacturing company.
Now, GRIP6 has partnered with Utah’s wool industry, particularly sixth-generation sheep rancher Albert Wilde, to find a source of good quality wool for their socks that come with a lifetime guarantee.
“The wool socks have become one of their bestsellers,” Wilde said. “But it was hard for them to source and get the wool.”
Losing the nation’s only wool testing laboratory last year made the process that much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive.
“Being able to find partners like GRIP6 — they did not grow up as producers and don’t have a sheep — but having someone like that who feels so strongly about wool who wants to fix some of these problems, it’s exciting,” Wilde said. “It is really advantageous for the wool industry and makes me excited for the future.”
Providing that greater U.S. independence when it comes to the manufacturing pipeline is something Wilde believes is becoming more important to citizens.
“I think especially over the last 10 years there has been more and more concern on the consumer end on where their stuff comes from,” Wilde said. “With the internet, there is so much information out there and misinformation as well.”
Wilde said bolstering the domestic supply chain with developments such as this new laboratory is critical, especially if the United States wants to start weaning itself off dominant foreign markets such as China.
“Since the 1960s, every country has seen a decline in sheep numbers except for China,” he said. “And every country has seen a decline in its manufacturing, except China. … With this global economy we need to make sure it stays balanced and that we still have processing in our country.”
The Midvale laboratory will help ranchers cut costs and avoid delays, which is key to an industry that already struggles, he said.
“The profit margins are so slim,” Wilde said. “If you are not really good at budgeting, not really good at finance, not really good at innovating, you are not in business. The farm gets sold and they put up houses.”
The Wilde family, like others in ranching and farming, has diversified its business, branching out to make use of waste wool to compress into pellets for fertilizer.
The product contains nitrogen and is sold in more than 29 commercial locations in Utah. Once in the ground, the wool acts as a sponge to gather water for the plants, reducing the water consumption rate by as much as 25%.
Wool, which some people dismiss as “scratchy,” only feels that way depending on its diameter. There’s even a brand of underwear made from wool that’s touted as “itch free, cooling, breathable, quick-drying, moisture-wicking, and oh-so soft.”
“As a textile, wool is sustainable, washable, quick-drying, flame resistant, super-insulating, even when wet,” Nelson said. “It is naturally antimicrobial, odor-resistant, and long-wearing. There’s nothing synthetic about that.”
Utah has 300,000 sheep, which are a triple-purpose animal used in wool production, for meat, and for milk.
“Our state is over 80% rangeland where you can’t grow food or other crops, but you can grow lamb and wool,” Nelson said. “It’s nice to be able to produce something where you can’t grow a vegetable.”
Hundreds of products include some part of the harvested sheep, including surgical sutures made from intestines, blood used in the manufacture of North American Rattlesnake Anti-venom, and horns, hooves, or bone turned into crochet needles and piano keys.