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Norn Sisters Woolen Mill looks to better serve Minnesota's wool economy

The recent report called Understanding Minnesota's Wool Economy cited low financial reward, difficulty marketing and the cost of processing as the biggest barriers to Minnesota shepherds selling wool.

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Alejandra Sanchez and Theresa Bentz speak at their launch event for Norn Sisters Woolen Mill on May 1, 2022 in at Keepsake Cidery in Dundas, Minnesota.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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DUNDAS, Minn. ― The Norn Sisters include Alejandra Sanchez, Theresa Bentz and the mill they are trying to build to serve Minnesota shepherds.

Sanchez and Bentz are both farmers and fiber artists who formed a partnership last year in which they helped each other expand their flocks as well as their supply of natural dyes. The two also teach classes to educate others in the wool community. Over the past year, the duo has purchased over 2,500 pounds of raw wool to use with their current milling equipment.

The two shepherds are now co-owners of the Norn Sisters Woolen Mill , which would be the only mill in the United States to exclusively use natural dyes.

"We started producing roving for hand spinners and teaching classes, and once we saw there was such a huge demand for what we were doing, we decided to formalize our partnership and create the Norn Sisters Woolen Mill," said Sanchez at Keepsake Cidery in Dundas on May 1, where they launched a Kickstarter to fund the mill.

"For our launch party we wanted to give folks more of a hands-on experience into what we're doing," said Sanchez. "We had lambs out here for them to take pictures with, a silent auction featuring products from farms that are here in the Cannon River Valley, and also some hand knitted items that our students donated, then also a table where people can sow some die plant seeds."

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The project raised over $20,000 of its $30,000 goal in the first two days of its campaign. 278 backers have pledged for a total of $34,625, as of May 8.

According to Bentz and Sanchez, the overall project will cost around $75,000, but the goal amount would allow them to put down a deposit for the equipment, cover transportation costs of the machinery and begin improvements on the current building where the mill will live.

Three sisters

"The Norn Sisters comes from Germanic mythology, and it's about the three sisters that weave the threads of humankind's fate," said Sanchez of the name of their mill. "One of them is the spinner, one of them is the weaver, and one of them cuts the threads."

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Alejandra Sanchez sorts wool on a shearing day.
Contributed / Alejandra Sanchez

With two of the sisters being Bentz and Sanchez, that leaves one more sister.

"We realized that the third sister is our mill," said Sanchez.

Bentz said what they need to produce an "end product of yarn" is a draw frame, spinner and skein winder.

"Those are the three pieces of equipment that we need, and I like to tell my farmer friends that it's as if we were buying three new tractors, because it's expensive equipment," said Bentz.

The shepherds turned to Kickstarter because Bentz said many grant programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture or other ag outlets are reserved for those strictly in food production. She said that wool and textiles are often not recognized as agricultural products even though they very much are.

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Theresa Bentz, shepherd and fiber artist of Get Bentz Farm, uses Viking combs to get Icelandic sheep wool ready for carding or spinning.
Noah Fish / Agweek

"A lot of agricultural grants look at this side of the sheep industry — the textile side — as just textiles and clothing manufacturing, even though we're not making clothing, we're just making yarn," said Bentz. "So we don't qualify for a lot of the ag value grants."

The current milling infrastructure in Minnesota and Wisconsin is composed mostly of cottage mills that process raw wool into yarn, said Bentz, and small mills are "few and far between". Most of them have a nine-month to one-year waiting list

"So you dangle your product, and all of your harvest, over an entire fiscal year, which is really hard," said Bentz.

Understanding Minnesota's wool economy

In 2019, Bentz pitched a plan to team up with Three Rivers Fibershed — a group working to develop regional fiber systems in Minnesota, and the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP), to launch a statewide project focused on mapping Minnesota’s sheep farming industry.

"We wanted to see what breeds of sheep are being grown in our state, and what people are doing with their wool," said Bentz.

The project showed there was a large diversity of breeds being raised in the state, but that most people who raise sheep in Minnesota raise smaller flocks.

Thirty nine different breeds of sheep are raised on farms in Minnesota, according to the report, for both wool and meat. Low financial reward, difficulty marketing and the cost of processing were described as the biggest barriers to shepherds selling wool.

"A lot of people don't have any way of processing their wool," said Bentz. "And they might not want to be the marketer, or might not want to get a website and sell their product. They would rather sell it to a mill that would turn it into a Minnesota branded item."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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