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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
in Part 2: 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