Sheep farmers across the US and Canada often end up burning, burying or stockpiling wool. Entrepreneurs, researchers and community groups are working to flip the script by transforming discarded wool into a different kind of fertilizer.
Photography by Shutterstock
When Leanna Maksymiuk started keeping sheep at Lone Sequoia Ranch, her business in British Columbia, she did it with a direct interest in fiber art. Today, she has a flock of 25 sheep, mostly Navajo-Churros, animals not common in Canada. There was a ready market for their wool, and when she started selling it, she sold out quickly.
To keep product in supply, she began asking other sheep farmers in her area if they had any fleeces they weren’t using. For sheep that are raised as meat, shearing is still a regular part of their upkeep, but the wool often isn’t used for anything. In fact, farmers across the US and Canada end up burning, burying or stockpiling their wool because processing it is expensive and seen as not worth the time and labor required. She was hoping to obtain just 15 fleeces, but Maksymiuk found that a lot of farmers were hoping to offload their wool somewhere.
“People were just like, ‘here, take it—just take all of it,’” says Maksymiuk. “And, somehow, we ended up with like 75 fleeces.”
As she undertook the cumbersome process of cleaning the wool, Maksymiuk realized she would end up with a lot of unusable material. Much of the wool was saturated with organic matter such as manure, straw and leaves. Bags of this “waste wool” sat around for a long time, with Maksymiuk unsure what to do with it. The solution didn’t appear until some time later, when another member of the wool industry gave her an idea: Turn the wool into pellet fertilizer.
Maksymiuk is now part of a wave of people spurring on an emerging market for wool that is often discarded, routing it back into agriculture.
Left: Maksymiuk’s flock. Right: Maksymiuk holds wool from a Navajo-Churro sheep. (Photos courtesy of Leanna Maksymiuk)
Pivoting to pellets
Kimberly Hagen, a former grazing specialist at the University of Vermont, doesn’t use the term “waste wool.” It’s not really waste, she explains—just wool that needs a purpose. She is one of the people who has put years into studying what that purpose could be.
For many sheep farms, wool is not a viable income stream. There are a few related reasons for this, including the rise of synthetic fibers and the lack of processing infrastructure. The cost of doing something with wool is often higher than any income that could be made from the wool. It’s hard to estimate how much wool goes unused in the US, but it’s a lot.
“A lot of people drag it out to the far corner of their farm or stuff it in bags and leave it in the corner of the barn ‘til it gets to take up so much room, they don’t know what to do,” says Hagen. “For most people, it just doesn’t even pay to drive to one of these collection sites. It’s just not worth it.”
Beyond yarn, wool can be a viable material for upholstery or insulation for green building. It’s also a useful mulch for gardens. One big obstacle when it comes to processing wool is the act of cleaning it, called scouring. This is expensive and sometimes requires transporting wool long distances. Hagen began researching one possible avenue for unused wool that wouldn’t require scouring: wool pellets for fertilizer.
Wool makes sense as a soil amendment. It has nitrogen, almost no phosphorus and a little bit of potassium. In pellet form, it doles out the nitrogen to the soil over time.
“What’s nice about the wool pellet is because it’s so fibrous, it’s a slow release; it really slows down that process,” says Hagen. During heavy rainfall, it doesn’t all wash away. This could possibly amount to less nutrient pollution in the waterways in comparison to synthetic fertilizers.
Through the University of Vermont, Hagen began testing the added value of wool pellets to crop soil. Initial trials indicated that the plants supplemented with wool pellets performed as well or better than the control plants.
While no longer with the university, Hagen is in the process of raising money and applying for grants to purchase pellet machinery and eventually buy wool from sheep farmers.
“I want to see sheep producers be able to have a revenue stream from the wool,” says Hagen. “So, my goal is to pay the farmers for that wool enough that it covers their costs for getting their sheep shorn and maybe a little more if I can make that happen.”
Left: One of Maksymiuk’s flock. Right: Wool pellets from Waste Not Wool. (Photos courtesy of Leanna Maksymiuk)
Getting the gear
In response to the knowledge that a lot of wool goes to waste, the national Fibershed group started a waste wool working group. A member of this group was pelletizing it for a soil amendment. This idea caught the eye of Peggy Hart, a member of the Western Mass Fibershed and wool artist, author and founder of Bedfellows Blankets, which weaves artisan blankets on antique looms.The Western Mass Fibershed decided to take on the project.
“I’m always wheeling and dealing with buying wool and helping sheep farmers get their yarn spun,” says Hart. “It’s trying to bring this particular fiber back to people’s consciousness because for so many years, people have not used wool. And yet, we continue to raise sheep.”
Western Mass Fibershed applied for grants and, with the funding it received, will be able to buy its own machinery to pelletize wool. This past season, Hart drove 100 pounds of wool down to Indiana to be converted into pellets as a test run. This year, the group sold the pellets at farmers markets and gave some to UMass to test in its permaculture gardens.
Hart is hoping to receive the machinery and have it up and running by the late winter or early spring, around the time the first shearing of the year occurs. She’s estimating they will be able to process 10,000 pounds of wool from the surrounding area, which she doesn’t anticipate will be hard to find. Many farmers she’s spoken to are happy to just get rid of the wool.
The other main goal for the future is to compensate farmers for their waste wool. It won’t be much to start, says Hart, but, hopefully, it would at least cover the cost of shearing. At The Big E, a fair in Massachusetts, Hart started talking to some of the farmers who were showing their sheep.
“They just sort of laughed when I asked them what they did with the wool,” says Hart. “And when I said that we actually hope to pay farmers for their waste wool, they were just ecstatic.”
Left: Maksymiuk’s child sits over waste wool. Right: Maksymiuk sells Waste Not Wool pellets. (Photos courtesy of Leanna Maksymiuk)
Building a business
Back at Lone Sequoia Ranch, after hearing about the possibility of making wool pellets, Maksymiuk took the plunge and bought the machinery from Europe. She started pelleting in June of 2022. To date, her business Waste Not Wool has redirected 9,000 pounds of waste wool from the landfill, burn pile or general lack of use. In addition to bringing nutrients to the soil, Maksymiuk has anecdotally observed that it holds water well, too, and helps aerate the soil.
She tells people to think of it like washing a wool sweater—when it’s wet, it weighs a lot more. “It’s so heavy because it’s saturated with water,” says Maksymiuk. “That’s like these little pellets.”
Now, she sells the pellets at in-person markets and online. In the future, she’d love to do pellet trials with farmers and custom pelleting—taking wool from farmers and giving it back to them as pellets.
“Lots of people that have sheep also have gardens,” says Maksymiuk. “So, I would really like to be able to take their wool, pellet it and have it go back to them so that they’re making their farms more circular.”
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