Editor’s note: This story originally aired on March 21st, 2014.
Wyoming has a long tradition of sheep ranching. The first flocks arrived with Mormon pioneers in the eighteen-eighties. By the early nineteen-hundreds, there were six million sheep and Wyoming led the nation in wool production. Now, there are fewer than 400-thousand sheep in the state and competition in the global market is stiff. But Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards visited one family that believes that—against all odds–the life of the flockmaster is worth keeping alive.
MELODIE EDWARDS: The wind is roaring fifty miles an hour across the high plains and the wind chill is sub-zero. It’s lambing season at the Tronstad Ranch northwest of Laramie. The Tronstad’s children chase the lambs around the barn, trying to catch them. Already eleven lambs have been born. Bryan Tronstad—who grew up on a ranch–says it’s a way of life they believe in strongly.
BRYAN TRONSTAD: I guess our whole thing here was we wanted to find a little piece of land and be able to raise a few animals and give our children the chance to experience some of the things we did growing up.
EDWARDS: Part of that dream is to clothe their family with homegrown wool. Tronstad’s wife, Lusha, is the fiber artist of the family.
BRYAN: She makes a lot of our clothing. And then with extra wool that we have, we do sell a little bit.
EDWARDS [to children] Are you guys wearing any of your mom’s wool right now?
TRESIZE Yeah, I have a sweater that she made.
EDWARDS: The Tronstads raise two breeds of sheep—Border Leicesters, a traditional Wyoming sheep—and Rambouillets, a first cousin to the Merinos with the same silky fibers. The Tronstads shear the sheep, wash the lanolin and hay out of the wool, dye it and even hand spin it into yarn.
The spinning wheel in the living room looks like an antique from a bygone era. Lusha Tronstad spins from a cloud of wool in a basket.
LUSHA: What I’m doing is stretching out the amount of fibers that I want. So that determines how thick the yarn’s going to be.
EDWARDS: In the seven years since they bought their land, the Tronstads have primarily just fed and clothed their own family with their flock, but they hope to one day make a go of the ranching business. Currently, the family relies on Lusha Tronstad’s income from her job at the University of Wyoming. But Bryan farms fulltime.
BRYAN: I do. I do a bunch of different things. Farming is just one of them.
EDWARDS: They’ll keep going because they believe in a self-sufficient lifestyle, but other wool producers may not. There are very few of the large-scale sheep ranches left in the state. A majority of woolgrowers have flocks of less than 100 head. The modern-day flockmaster needs to get multiple forms of income from their land. And one reason is because the annual losses of sheep are incredibly high.
HENDRICKSON: Wyoming ranches lost about 36,000 sheep to both predators, weather and disease. That’s roughly about ten percent of our industry. No industry can sustain a ten percent loss every year.
EDWARDS: That’s Amy Hendrickson. She’s the Executive Director of the Wyoming Woolgrower’s Association. She also says it’s an expensive commodity to produce because it’s hard to get enough grazing leases for large flocks and the competition with synthetic fibers is high. There are also fewer protections for this industry than many others. And wool producers in places like Australia and New Zealand out-compete woolgrowers in the U.S., taking up over eighty percent of the industry. But Hendrickson says there are some economic benefits since the animals do provide duel opportunities to make money.
HENDRICKSON: Those animals provide a double crop, so to speak. It’s rewarding to know you can provide a protein that feeds people but also a fiber that clothes people.
EDWARDS: Another bright spot for the Tronstad’s dream of living off the wool business is the increasing public interest in local goods. Lori Kirk is the owner of Cowgirl Yarn in Laramie which sells the Tronstad’s handspun yarns. She prices the yarn significantly higher than other brands.
KIRK: When it’s something that is basically homegrown from your own backyard and sometimes there’s even a little vegetable matter so they can even leave with a little bit of Wyoming in their yarn, it’s very special. And people truly appreciate the fiber for what it is, are willing—and I’m grateful that they’re willing—to spend the extra money.
EDWARDS: Wyoming continues to be one of the larger wool producing states in the country along with Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. But in today’s market, wool is increasingly a small cottage industry. But for the Tronstad family that suits them perfectly.