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The “Maine Event”

Yankee Ingenuity Pays Big At Fleece Tent

By Tim King

Photos by Jean English, Courtesy of Maine Organic Farmers
and Gardeners Assoc., www.mofga.org

How can shepherds sell $12,000 worth of fleeces in one weekend? That’s what Maine shepherds did at the September 2008 Common Ground Fair at Unity, Maine. Close to 60,000 people attended the three-day fair. Actually, the shepherds didn’t sell their fleeces. A small dedicated group of wool enthusiasts did most of the selling in the fair’s “Fleece Tent.”

“I’m part of a group known as the Wednesday Spinners,” Penelope Olson says. “We meet every Wednesday from mid-September to the end of May or early June. The Wednesday Spinners have been meeting since 1975.”

Olson, and her friend Jani Estell, are the fleece tent coordinators at the Common Ground Fair.

“We had a total of 47 growers participating in 2008 and we sold a total of 306 units,” Olson reports. “Most of them were sheep fleeces—over 1,000 pounds of wool sold—but a good number of them were alpaca blankets, in addition to mohair, llama, Angora rabbit, and cashmere cloud. The cashmere is the only processed fiber we accept.”

Wednesday Spinners demonstrate all aspects of fiber working, including finished works on display, which helps draw attention to the value of the wool for sale in the Fleece Tent.
Wednesday Spinners demonstrate all aspects of fiber working, including finished works on display, which helps draw attention to the value of the wool for sale in the Fleece Tent.

Convincing Flockmasters To Take
$4 to $25/lb. For Their Fleeces

That’s a little over $39 per unit sold not by the producers themselves but by the very people inclined to be their customers. The fact is Olson has had to gently coax shepherds and other fiber producers to bring their fiber to the three-decades-old fair.

The Wednesday Spinners—who had been demonstrating spinning at the fair since 1978—took over management of the Fleece Tent in 2006. The tent had been part of the fair for years but the former tent managers had grown weary and its demise was possible.

“We all said, ‘Gosh, that would be awful not to have a fleece tent,'” Olson recalls. “So somebody said, ‘We could do that!’— you know how these things happen. There were about six of us who were really interested. Somebody had to be the ‘point person’ and that turned out to be me.

“So I spent the spring and summer of 2006 reconnecting with growers. I told them we were really interested in doing a sale and a show. The first year we had 28 growers come back.

“I send out four e-mails a year to tell growers, ‘We know there are other venues for marketing your wool but this is the best!’

“There are vendor booths here where they can bring their sheep, alpacas, or llamas and show them. Fiber is a very big part of the fair.”

Buyers love variety - and love to arrive early so they won't miss out on the best fleeces.
Buyers love variety—and love to arrive early so they won’t miss out on the best fleeces.

Secrets Of The Fair’s Success

The fact that fiber is an important part, but only a part, of the Common Ground Fair, is likely critical to the success of the Fleece Tent.

The Common Ground Fair is a showcase for much of Maine’s organic agriculture, small businesses and cottage industries, and food producers. The Maine Organic Gardeners and Farmers Association, or MOFGA, sponsors it.

MOFGA is an organic certification agency that takes its role as an agricultural educator very seriously. Maine agriculture includes lamb, wool, various other natural fibers, and the fiber arts but it also includes everything from gardening to the harvest of Maine’s plentiful wild blueberries to forestry. It is that rich agricultural diversity that draws an increasing number of people to the fair each year. And if 10,000 or 20,000 of them happen by the Wednesday Spinners and the Fleece Tent and just a few hundred seeds of interest are germinated, well hurrah! Multiply that by 30 years and you’ve built a foundation for an industry.

The fair is a focused and intentional event despite its large size.

“This is a Maine fair,” Olson says. “The wool is all Maine wool. That’s a MOFGA policy. It doesn’t have to be organic but the fair is a celebration of rural living in Maine. The food is absolutely spectacular. It has to be 75 percent Maine-grown, organic, and whole grain. It’s a wonderful showcase for Maine.”

Since MOFGA—and the Common Ground Fair—serve all aspects of Maine agriculture the lamb and wool sector has to speak up from time to time. Olson has been willing to do so.

“At one point when the fair was debating whether to have a fleece tent or not somebody said we’ll just get a big tent and the growers can come in and set up their fleeces,” Olson recounts. “We knew that wouldn’t work. The growers can’t be there all the time. You need coordination. We do encourage them to be there—and some of them are—but they have other things to do as well. It’s difficult for them to be away for a long weekend.”

Cheerful artisans, explaining how wool is spun, helps build new interest in textile crafts each year, adding to the pool of next year's buyers.
Cheerful artisans, explaining how wool is spun, helps build new interest in textile crafts each year, adding to the pool of next year’s buyers.

Fleece Tent Management

The Wednesday Spinners have taken on the role of coordinators. As coordinators they have rearranged the tent a bit.

“They used to put one grower’s fleeces all together no matter what the breed or color of fleece,” Olson says. “What we’ve been doing is dividing the tent in half. One half for colored fleeces and the other for white fleeces. Then we put signs up to say what is there, based on the type of wool: Whether it’s fine, medium, or coarse.

“We’re thinking about dropping the word ‘coarse’ because people can get the wrong idea. Coarse wool can be very soft; it doesn’t have to be rug wool. We also have long wool breeds and dual-coat separated out.

“Then, within the various categories, we group fleeces by growers.

“Finally, we group the specialty fibers—alpaca, llama, and the like—together by type and grower.”

“The growers were used to having all their fleeces together and this new system took some getting used to. We stressed that this arrangement emphasizes the educational component of our area and allows us to talk about the uses of different types of fleeces with customers. The growers are fine with the system now.”

Will This Selling Model Endure?

Conducting wool-working activities, such as a dyeing demonstration, draws public attention (and buyers) to the Fleece Tent.
Conducting wool-working activities, such as a dyeing demonstration, draws public attention (and buyers) to the Fleece Tent.

Success does produce satisfaction. “In our first year of managing the fleece tent we did about $9,000 in business,” Olson recalls. “In 2007 we did over $10,000 and this year we did $12,000.

“I was worried this year because the economy was tanking. But the people who come to the fair are very interested in what Maine produces. They want to take home something beautiful from Maine. Maybe they were cutting back elsewhere but sales were good at the fair.

“Friday is our biggest day because people know that if they don’t get what they want early, it may be gone by Saturday. Of the $12,000 this year I think we did over $6,000 on Friday.”

The amount shepherds get paid for their fleeces varies.

“Prices are up to the grower,” Olson says. “A few people bring in fleeces that aren’t top quality and sell them for four or five dollars a pound, primarily as felting fleeces. But with other growers $8, $10, $12 per pound is not uncommon. There is one grower who has really classy fleeces and he puts $25 per pound on them. He gets it.

“Some of the shepherds really know how to produce fine hand spinning fleeces. We are trying to encourage that. In the future we hope to have a workshop on that. For starters we encourage the shepherds with small flocks to cover their sheep and when they feed not to throw hay over them.”

MOFGA gets 10 % of the sales.

Olson says that there has been a resurgence of the lamb and wool industry in Maine in recent decades. She believes the educational and sales efforts of the Common Ground Fair have without doubt played a role in that resurgence.

If the success of the Common Ground Fair Fleece Tent has a message for the larger American lamb and wool industry it is that success may well come from regarding customers, together with the agricultural community at large, as part of your team. Having a rich relationship with the whole team may well be the path to success and increased sales.

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