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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.