Fibre sector discovers benefits of ‘grow local’ movement

For between $100 and $500 you can buy one of Anna Hunter’s lambs. Not buy, as in take home, but as in you have a stake in it, and in return, an intimate knowledge of how it’s raised — how it’s weaned, in what pasture it grazes on, and in how its wool is processed. And when that happens, you get a chunk of its fleece.

Hunter’s sponsorSHEEP program has seen huge success in its two years, both times selling out within minutes of the lambs being posted.

“I think it speaks volumes to the amount of interest people have in connecting to the source of their fibre,” says Hunter, who runs Long Way Homestead, a sheep farm and wool mill in eastern Manitoba with her husband and two sons.

Farming is usually associated with food, and fibre farmers like Hunter are often left out of the conversation when people talk about agriculture.

“You can’t farm in Manitoba naked, so why is this not a big issue?” she says. “If you care about what’s happening to the soil and with the climate, then why are you not making the connection?”

If you look at how much momentum the local food movement has right now, it’s evident the local fibre movement is years behind. Alberta recently celebrated its first Local Food Week, and in the spring, the provincial government passed the Supporting Alberta’s Local Food Sector Act.

“Thirty years behind,” says Becky Porlier, co-founder of the Upper Canada Fibreshed. “It’s funny that they didn’t come up together. I think what we put on our bodies isn’t necessarily as front of mind, although they’re both agricultural products.”

The UCFS is a network of farmers, weavers, spinners, designers, and others involved in the fibre community within a 400-kilometre radius of Toronto. It’s an affiliate of the broader Fibreshed movement developed by Rebecca Burgess in 2010 in California. Fibreshed creates textile communities, which directly connect farmers to artisans and to consumers.

“The Fibreshed and the local food movement goes so beyond just providing a healthy alternative,” Porlier says. “It is just kind of breaking and remaking the system in a way that takes the whole concept of climate change and what we’re doing to the environment and tries to turn it into a positive reaction.”

But as uplifting as those ideas are, the barriers to running a successful fibre farm can be imposing.

“Fibre has become sort of an afterthought,” says Jennifer Bowes of Riverside Farm.

She and her partner, Trevor Hann, as well as their daughter, Ellie, have about 60 sheep they raise for both meat and wool.

“We thought it would be good to have multi-purpose sheep because so many people have sheep just for meat, and then they throw away the fibre because it’s not really worth anything. That seems crazy to me.”

As both a food farmer and fibre farmer, Bowes has the added challenge of finding the right genetics for her animals, which are mostly considered rare breeds in Canada.

And because her farm is near Pouce Coupe, B.C., just minutes west of the Alberta border, Bowes has to travel four days there-and-back to get her wool milled in Carstairs.

On top of sourcing genetics and finding a mill (Hunter recently bought her own because there were no mills in Manitoba or Saskatchewan), these fibre farmers also need to find someone to shear the sheep, a dying trade, and maybe most importantly, need to find a consumer base who understand why local fibre is so much more expensive than anything available at discount retail chain stores.

In my own search to find locally made, farmer-supported clothing, all I found were scarves and socks and items well beyond my budget — $600-for-a-local-sweater beyond my budget.

“Even if it’s a sustainably grown, organic cotton T-shirt, it’s so much cheaper than anything you could buy in your own fibreshed,” Porlier says.

But the thought process that what goes into our body is more important than what goes onto it ignores the environmental implications of fast fashion — of shipping fibre halfway across the world, only to have it shipped back as a final, wearable product that is both cheap in price and cheap in quality.

Porlier sees potential in working with fibre farmers to sequester carbon in their soil — and eventually, figure out how many greenhouse gases were emitted, or sequestered, in a locally made fibre product.

“Instead of saying, ‘no, we don’t want any more fossil fuels,’ we’re saying, ‘here’s an economy that can be based on a climate-beneficial life cycle,’ ” she says.

In Alberta, Olds College holds an annual Fibre Week, and in Manitoba there’s a yearly Fibre Festival. Saskatchewan, too, hosts fibre fairs. Manitoba has a Fibreshed affiliate, as does Atlantic Canada, and British Columbia has four.

But without the resources or the reach of government, the local fibre movement will remain decades behind the local food movement, to the detriment of small farmers like Bowes and Hunter.

“Why couldn’t we have local fibre weeks?” Hunter says. “There needs to be an understanding that if local food is there, they should be inviting local fibre. There is a clear connection.”

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