Specialized breed caters to demands of dedicated buyers
By WES SANDER
Aynn Lackey, a small producer of ewes in La Grande, Ore., is in the right spot for a wool market gaining new popularity. She's also making the market her own.
Lackey's backdrop is a wool industry enjoying a resurgence. The fiber is showing up in the clothing of outdoor enthusiasts and soldiers. Its processing has recently advanced, its scratchy texture has been tamed and it can be safely washed. Firefighters like that it's fireproof.
While that seems a sturdy foundation, Lackey is concentrating on a boutique, high-value market to squeeze profit from her one-person operation, which is currently down to "an embarrassing 20" ewes, she said.
After finishing high school in the Central Valley city of Vacaville, Calif., Lackey earned an animal science degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1993. She studied agriculture because of family tradition, which included her late father, Norman Rapanich, an economic developer now remembered as founder of the World Ag Expo in Tulare., Calif.
After college, Lackey moved to Eastern Oregon's Grande Ronde Valley to find affordable land with new husband, Brian, whose family lives nearby.
The couple made a go of ranching, producing meat and wool that they marketed through conventional avenues. The wool went through a regional pool, which proved limiting.
"When you're a small producer, you don't have a wool clip of thousands of pounds that you can market," Lackey said. "They're not even going to look at you if you don't have a zillion pounds of it. So for a lot of years, we got really into the carcass side of sheep production."
By the late-'90s, when the couple found they couldn't meet startup costs, Brian went to work for the family insurance agency, which he now runs.
And Lackey began tweaking the product. By focusing more closely on variety traits, she soon improved the wool to serve a specialized market while retaining carcass quality.
"I had a personal interest in knitting and spinning, and I was frustrated that I had a commodity that I couldn't use," she said. "With sheep, you can use the whole animal. In today's economy, you've really got to be able to stretch it."
Lackey combined Columbia ewes with Texels and Border Leicesters to produce animals with the respective enhanced muscle, larger frame and superior wool of the three varieties.
Now the family farm, Little Creek, is a different operation.
Lackey offers the sort of high-quality yarn sought by enthusiasts. She contracts to produce handbags that sell through an online store linked to her website. And she pursues the sustainable- and local-products markets with subtle aplomb, drawing a clear connection from the ewes in her field to the products on the screen.
"There are people out there -- knitters -- who will pay big bucks for unique, sustainable, renewable fiber that's different from just going to the store," Lackey said. "You've got to work at it. It's much easier to just put it in the wool pool and market your lambs -- you've got to take the extra steps."
Lackey this year sent 800 pounds of fiber to a company in Massachusetts that spins it into blankets, using uncolored fiber to show the browns and tans of the Border Leicesters.
"We're kind of turning a corner, and people want local products," she said. "It sure helps at the end of the year when you're doing your taxes."
Hometown: La Grande, Ore.
Occupation: Wool and lamb producer
Family: Husband Brian; sons Harris, 12, and Andrew, 8
Education: Bachelor's degree in animal science, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Quote: "With sheep, you can use the whole animal. In today's economy, you've really got to be able to stretch it."