News from the Secretary

News from the Secretary by Larry Gabriel Have you any wool?

There was a time when most farm lands in eastern South Dakota were surrounded by woven wire fences designed especially to hold sheep.�It was the law in most townships.

Most of our sheep growers and woven wire fences are gone. The fences (where there are any left) are mainly barbed wire fences built for cattle or buffalo.

The story of wool production in our state is one about tough people living through tough times.�Sheep grazing is an old tradition in Western South Dakota.�My father started out there as a sheep herder then grower, before turning to cattle.� Cattle and sheep dominated the range.

No discussion of this topic is complete without mentioning Belle Fourche, a small town now, but once a booming railhead that shipped up to 2,500 carloads of cattle per month.� The town is still famous as a marketing center for wool.�

The wool warehouse in Belle Fourche has changed hands several times in recent decades but is now owned by Center of the Nation Wool, Inc., a wool marketing company selling for producers in seven states.�

South Dakota had tons of wool in the 1940s. More precisely, we produced 16 million pounds of it in 1942.�

Today, production is about 3 million pounds. That's a decline of about 80 percent. More than 8,000 South Dakota sheep operations have gone out of the business since 1965.

Like many other areas of agriculture, in the wool business there are fewer producers and fewer processors to buy the commodities.�Sheep growers face that condition topped off with more predators, a drought and cheap foreign competition.

However, the ag industry is not just sitting here doing nothing about these problems.�

When you visit the State Fair this year and meander past those prize sheep being groomed by one of our youth, stop and ask them a few questions.�

You might be surprised to learn that his or her family invested decades in developing a line that produces wool of just the right texture, length and oil content.�Or, you might learn that sheep are an environmental barometer of plastic contamination on the farm because the plastics show up in the wool when it is processed.�

Or, you might learn that some producers are developing specialty markets for their fine wools created by controlled breeding, diet and environment.

To me, the difference between a good wool shirt and a poly-blend shirt is like the difference between a prime sirloin steak and a frozen burger patty.�Some consumers are learning to take quality over convenience or cheap price.�

The other good news is that we are working on the idea of a new lamb processing facility in South Dakota, and best of all, we don't have to fight that woven wire fence each spring after the snows push it almost to the ground.

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