CASE STUDY: Transitioning to organic
Tierra Wools, Part I

Linking old traditions with contemporary enterprise
In the high range country of northern New Mexico, a community of ranchers, shepherds and weavers has found new markets for the rare Navajo-Churro, a 400-year old sheep breed that was nearly lost for good

By Robert Gerard
Posted September 1, 2005

Farm enterprises

Tierra Wools and Los Ojos Handweavers, LLC
Los Ojos, New Mexico

Year established: 1983
Products: Wool, yarn, weavings
Marketing: Retail shop, telephone, Internet, special exhibitions

Shepherd's Lamb
Antonio & Molly Manzanares
Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico

Certified organic since: 1998
Products: Certified organic, grass-fed lamb
Marketing: Farmers' markets, restaurants, grocery stores, mail order

Tierra Wools is based in the small hamlet of Los Ojos, in the high mountains of northern New Mexico. It came into existence thanks to the efforts of Ganados del Valle, a non-profit organization working to preserve local traditions of livestock rearing, spinning and weaving. A central focus of the project was the Churro sheep breed, originally brought here by Spanish colonists in the 16th century.

The company now known as Tierra Wools was started by Ganados del Valle in 1983 as a wool cooperative seeking to integrate sheep rearing, wool processing and spinning, and the sale of yarn via the Internet and mail order. Over the past 20 years, the cooperative has evolved into a thriving business, with vertical integration and value-added marketing providing a stable income to sheep producers and weavers in this isolated, economically depressed region.

Ganados del Valle's efforts to reintroduce traditional shepherding and weaving methods sought to repair a rift that occurred about 150 years ago. Formerly, as citizens of Mexico, the people of the area were granted vast tracts of land from the king of Spain. On this rich and beautiful mountain land, they lived close to the earth, raising sheep and developing the traditions connected with them.

After the Mexican-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the people of this area became citizens of the United States. Although they were told their land grants would be respected, many properties were appropriated by the U.S. government and by individuals of non-Hispanic descent. The extensive ranches were reduced to tiny parcels, and the Churro sheep all but vanished.

When Ganados del Valle began its efforts in the early 1980s, there were about 10 small-scale sheep producers remaining in the Los Ojos area. Antonio and Molly Manzanares were the largest of these and were founding members of Tierra Wools. The descendents of ranchers, they had been building up their flocks even though they had limited access to land. Their sheep were primarily Rambouillet, Suffolk, and Rambouillet/Suffolk crosses.

Bringing back Churro culture

Reintroducing weaving as an outlet for wool and creating employment was not as difficult as one might imagine. A number of the members of Ganados del Valle's wool cooperative already had weaving experience. Although these hobby weavers were using acrylic yarns, their skills caught the eye of expert weaver Rachel Brown when she came to the area to teach a spinning class. Over a period of several years, Brown taught the local weavers how to work with natural wools and dyes and developed a curriculum for teaching weaving and business skills. Through her work with the wool cooperative, Brown helped strengthen the skills of the weavers who would become the backbone of Tierra Wools. As Angie Serrano, one of the first members of Tierra Wools, puts it, “We are successful in part because Ganados del Valle hired Rachel Brown.”

Now using natural wools, the weavers plied their yarns for a couple of years using the fine, short fibers of the Rambouillet and Suffolk breeds that were common in the area around Los Ojos. In the mid-1980s, the Churro was nowhere to be found and it was assumed this ancient and hardy sheep breed had been lost.

Ganados del Valle next invited Dr. Lyle McNeal, a sheep specialist from Utah State University, to come to Los Ojos to see if the Churro (also called the Navajo-Churro since the breed was widely adopted by the Navajo in the early years of Spanish settlement) was truly gone. McNeal examined the cross-bred sheep of the area for Churro characteristics and found significant traces of Churro blood in a few of them. Over the course of seven or eight years, he and the sheep growers selected and bought breeding stock to revive the Churro in the valley.

At the same time, the sheep producers and weavers of Los Ojos faced the challenge of land access. To expand their breeding lines and build wool and meat production, they needed more land for grazing. The land that had once belonged to their families now belonged to other landowners or to the government. Although it was possible to get grazing permits from agencies like the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the state of New Mexico, the permit applications of the Los Ojos sheep producers were consistently passed over.

Desperate for a resolution, the Los Ojos producers drove their sheep without permits onto state lands in 1989. This act of civil disobedience quickly caught the attention of the national media. For a few days, there was a standoff in the mountains between the sheep producers and government officials. Finally, the sheep producers decided they had made their point, and they retreated.

Little was gained legally from this demonstration, but it did succeed in drawing attention to the sheep producers' plight. With the help of other concerned citizens, they eventually succeeded in gaining a permit to graze their flocks on 14 sections of Forest Service land.

Today, the Los Ojos producers also face mounting land development pressure. People from the cities, looking for peace and quiet, are buying land at rates are far above what the sheep producers can afford.

Organic certification

With more land to graze their flocks, the Los Ojos producers' next objective was to develop their markets. Most of the producers own small flocks maintained on homestead pastures and in corrals. The meat they produce is sold or given away and consumed locally. The wool is sheared in early spring and sold to Tierra Wools. Up to this point, none of the smaller producers has been certified organic for meat production.

Antonio and Molly Manzanares are the exception. They have reached out well beyond Los Ojos to market their meat under the label, “Shepherd's Lamb.” At first they focused on marketing meat and wool from their Rambouillet, Suffolk, and Rambouillet/Suffolk crosses. Over the past several years, however, they have noticed a growing demand for Churro meat and wool. They obtained their first Churros in 1986 and have gradually increased their numbers since.

They also noticed more and more people asking for organic products. Knowing their production methods were already largely organic and deciding certification would help them further develop their markets, Shepherd's Lamb became certified organic for meat in 1998. It was then relatively easy to market their wool as organic as well.

Tierra Wools was interested in using the Manzanares’ organic wool to create a naturally dyed yarn market. Melded with the growing demand for Churro wool, the members of Tierra Wools felt they had a winning combination. Although a part of their yarn and weaving business has remained conventional, a large and growing segment is now done with organic wool and natural dyes.

Organic status has been easily maintained in the Manzanares’ operation. The sheep are allowed to graze on rangeland for a good part of the year and are very healthy. They have few problems with external parasites and never have to be dipped, alleviating concerns about residues from these potentially toxic chemicals in the meat and wool.

Nor are predators much of a problem. The Manzanares employ a full-time shepherd who lives with the flock, and they use Great Pyrenees dogs and llamas as guard animals. Although mountain lions are abundant in the mountains, they are reclusive by nature and do not often approach the sheep. Coyotes, and to a lesser extent feral dogs, are the major predators.

The annual shepherding cycle

In the summer, Antonio and Molly Manzanares keep their sheep on the 14 sections leased from the Forest Service in the mountains above Canjilon. While on these mountain pastures, the sheep are kept on the move by the shepherd. The leased area is also monitored by the Forest Service to make sure the grazing is done properly. Minimizing grazing impact is not difficult, Antonio Manzanares says, since sheep are natural browsers and like to keep moving.

When winter approaches in September and October, the sheep are trailed on horseback from the mountain pastures down to the road. The ewes are then transported by truck to fall range, while the lambs go to a rented pasture near Los Ojos to graze on a timothy grass and clover mix.

Antonio Manzanares tries to keep the lambs here for as long as possible, for both nutritional and financial reasons. Walking over the pasture in early November, he said there was enough green material left to keep the lambs on it for another week. He also commented on the lack of dandelions and other weeds among the grass. The sheep have a preference for weeds, he observed, which helps keep the pasture clean and gives their meat a good, spicy flavor.

When the pasture goes dormant, the lambs are moved to an area nearer the Manzanares’ home. Here they are fed on organic alfalfa hay for the remainder of the winter. Antonio Manzanares says he prefers to feed the lambs on organic alfalfa hay rather than organic grain. In addition to the prohibitively high price of organic grains, he cites research showing that grass-fed meat has more healthy omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids, or CLAs, than does grain-fed meat.

There are 690 ewes in the Manzanares' flock. This year Antonio will be moving about 570 to winter pasture and holding 120 Churro ewes back for selective breeding to Churro rams. He wants to keep building his numbers of Churros up because many people prefer Churro meat and because Tierra Wools' business is increasingly centered around the Churro.

Moving the ewes can be both complicated and expensive. In 2003, they were trucked to fall range near Roswell, some 300 miles away, at a cost of more than $7,000. In 2004, they were moved just 50 miles away, to a lower-elevation site just south of Tres Piedras. The location of fall and spring range for the sheep depends on what grazing permits are available and what deals can be worked out with other people in the business.

Breeding and lambing

At the beginning of December, the ewes on fall pasture are introduced to the rams--three rams to every 100 ewes. After breeding, they are trucked back to Los Ojos to join the lambs on a diet of organic alfalfa supplemented with clover and timothy pasture. The organic alfalfa comes to Los Ojos from a farm in Alamosa, Colorado, at a cost of between $75 and $165 a ton. Even though this hay is organic, Antonio Manzanares mentions the farmer does not put much of a premium on it. Nevertheless, hay bills are one of the Manzanares' biggest expenses, easily running $20,000 a year.

Early in April, the pregnant ewes are shorn. Removing the ewes' heavy fleeces at this stage makes lambing a cleaner, more efficient process and lets the newborn lambs find the ewes' teats more easily. After shearing, the ewes are transported back to Tres Piedras, where they remain on the lambing and spring range until late May.

This range doesn’t fatten up the pregnant ewes but helps them maintain good body condition and keeps them well nourished. Having enough green material on spring range is especially important for milk production. Lambing starts around April 25, after a five-month gestation. In late May, the ewes and their lambs are trailed for five days by riders on horseback from Tres Piedras to their summer range in the mountains above Los Ojos. They stay there until fall, when the cycle repeats itself.

Each ewe produces one or two lambs a year for five or six years. From a flock of 700 or so ewes, the Manzanares say, they expect 1,000 lambs. About 100 of the best ewe lambs are kept each year to replace old ewes, which are sold for mutton.

Marketing meat

About 90 percent of the Manzanares' business is focused on meat production; the balance is wool sales to Tierra Wools. The Rambouillet/Suffolk crosses yield more meat per animal than the smaller Churros, but many people prefer the Churro meat for its richer flavor.

Every two weeks beginning in late August and continuing throughout the winter, spring, and summer, about 50 of the heaviest lambs are taken to an organic processing facility in Durango, Colorado, to be slaughtered and butchered. As the year progresses, the lambs' live weight drops from around 115 pounds to around 105 pounds. The lambs are finished on grass prior to slaughter.

After processing, another trip is made in a refrigerated truck from Los Ojos to pick the meat up for distribution. Processing costs $75 to $90 per lamb, depending on weight. The lambs dress out at 48 to 50 percent of live weight. The whole uncut carcass fetches $3.99 per pound. Processed into cuts, the Manzanares’ receive $13.99 per pound for popular, high-end cuts such as loin chops or rack of lamb and $2.79 per pound for the less popular ribs and organ meat. They receive about 50 cents per pound more for Churro meat.

The Manzanares sell their lamb to restaurants and grocery stores, and at local farmers' markets, where they share marketing with other members of the New Mexico Organic Cooperative. Each co-op member sells his or her own products along with other members' products at the farmers' markets he/she attends. In this way, the co-op members improve their distribution and sales over a wider area. A lot of lamb is also sold directly to individual customers, especially during the Christmas season, when many regular customers order whole and half lambs.

There are disadvantages to marketing their products through so many different channels, Antonio points out. He would like to find ways to reduce transportation costs and the labor dedicated to making sales. Although it's good to have diverse markets, it would be much easier to sell most of his product to one of the large natural food stores in the area. In time, he hopes other sheep producers will get certified organic so that they can have more collective marketing power.

Shepherd's Lamb is priced slightly higher than conventionally raised lamb. Antonio believes that organic products often cost too much and that a big premium can price a producer out of the market. “All I am looking for is to mark up enough to cover costs and a little more and that is it,” he says. He has built a solid customer base, and the demand for his product is growing. That demand is driven in part, he feels, by the BSE and E. coli scares, which have made people more aware of where their meat comes from, and in part by increased consumer awareness of the health benefits of grass-fed meat.

A growing segment of people are concerned about food quality and want to keep local ranchers and farmers in business, Antonio argues. In his experience, the trend began among wealthier customers but increasingly includes middle-class people as well. “People come and say, we want to support you, just stay on the land and produce good food." In October 2003, the Manzanares were invited to Italy for the Terra Madre conference hosted by Slow Food, where they got a broader view of worldwide support for small-scale farmers and ranchers and the food they produce.

Even with improving market conditions, the Manzanares face rising expenses and a corresponding need to increase the price of their lamb. The new processing facility in Durango is more expensive and farther away than the one they used to use. Gas prices have gone up, hitting both their production and distribution costs. As Antonio Manzanares puts it, “The killer is the cost of fuel. Every time we pull out of here we have to go over a hundred miles.” In 2003, they spent about $2,000 a month on gas, and in coming years they will probably spend even more.

Part II: Transforming Churro wool into rugs and tapestries requires more hard work--from shearing and washing to spinning, dyeing, weaving, and managing the Tierra Wools' retail store.