Courting the fashion world with mohair

CEW-MR-3-Courting 2by Sally Colby
Like many farms in central Pennsylvania, the Glen Cauffman farm is tucked into a quiet valley, surrounded by gently rolling hills that cradle the Susquehanna River in Perry County, Pennsylvania. The farm isn’t unusual in regard to size and topography, but what’s happening there is unique.
Cauffman is a life-long farmer who spent 24 years as the director of farm operations for Penn State University. With interest in land stewardship, conservation planning and appropriate land use, Cauffman wanted an enterprise that would allow him to develop a market that wouldn’t be dependent on commodity prices. He explored the idea of raising Angora goats, partly because he liked their appearance but also to see if they’d thrive in the area. Cauffman did a thorough economic analysis of Angoras as a livestock enterprise, including the fact that mohair commands a higher price than wool. But Cauffman says a major part of his decision to raise goats was to solve the dilemma of a pasture that included a grove of trees, a stream running through it and multiflora rose that was five feet tall and as solid as a hedge. “It wasn’t the kind of place I could mow, spray or control,” he said. “It was going to be a forever jungle, but goats are good at clearing that kind of brush.”
In 2005, Cauffman brought ten Angora does and a buck to the farm. The animals thrived, and effectively cleared the brush. Today, 150 Angora goats are producing fiber on Cauffman’s farm for his company, Pure American Naturals (PAN). PAN is based on the concept of developing markets for American wool and mohair through partnerships with farmers who produce the fiber, mills that process fiber, fashion designers who create clothing and consumers who use the end product. With an emphasis on sustainability, animal well-being and entrepreneurial energy, PAN focuses on the end goal of customer satisfaction.
PAN staff includes Dr. Judith Shoemaker, DVM, who develops animal management and husbandry protocols for cooperating producers. “One of the things we want to do with PAN is provide education to consumers and farmers,” said Shoemaker. “We can transform the perception of value of agricultural products when someone sees that that sweater is made from the hair from an adorable kid, whose mom was selectively bred, whose food was carefully raised.”
Young does are bred when they’re a full year old, and kid for the first time as two-year olds. “We breed at the end of October and early November for late March and early April kids,” said Cauffman. “They’re flushed prior to breeding, and the presence of a buck brings them into heat.”
As he observed the goats’ eating habits, Cauffman found that they prefer diversity and won’t eat the same plant repeatedly if there are other options. He plans to take advantage of this habit by developing pasture species that are both attractive to goats and are natural anthelmintics. This will reduce the use of dewormers in the herd, which will in turn combat the issue of parasites’ resistance to available anthelmintic products.
“I’m interested in moving toward alternative forages,” said Cauffman, describing plants that have anthelmintic properties. “We have a stand of cup plant, a tall, native perennial with 26 percent protein, and we’ve frost-seeded birdsfoot trefoil and kura clover.” Other plants with natural anthelmintic properties include serecia lespedeza, sun hemp and sainfoin, a legume. Cauffman estimates that carefully planned pasture seedings will raise the carrying capacity of the farm’s pastures to 250 head.
Mohair grows fast — about one inch/month — so Angora goats are sheared in March, prior to kidding, and again in early October. At nearly every shearing, Cauffman collects samples from each animal and sends them to a lab in San Angelo, Texas for analysis. Samples are evaluated for fiber traits including staple length and micron measurement at several points on the hair shaft. “Mohair is finest when the animal is young,” said Cauffman, noting that he’s identifying animals that consistently produce fine, highly desirable fiber. “The fiber tends to get coarser as the animal ages, then when they’re old, the fleece becomes fine again.” Mohair is also evaluated for style, which is the twist in the staple, and character, which is the crimp, or the wave in the staple. Since the aim of PAN is to market high-quality mohair yarn to the New York fashion industry, these traits are important.
After shearing, mohair is processed at Gurdy Run Mill, a full-process mill that’s right across the river from Cauffman’s farm. Cauffman credits Gurdy Run Mill for converting raw mohair to consistent, finely spun yarn that meets designers’ specifications.
PAN has been awarded a USDA value-added producer grant to develop mohair products. Cauffman and Shoemaker have taken yarn and knit samples to top-name fashion designers in New York City, where they’ve been well-received. PAN products will include a QR code (quick response code; a two-dimensional code used to provide easy access to information through a smart phone or other QR reader), which will allow the purchaser to trace back to the farm and animals from which the fiber originated.
“There’s a growing segment of consumers who want more information,” said Cauffman. “We now have the technology to provide that information. With the power of the internet, we can give them a virtual tour of the farm. We want to make it as convenient and simple as possible, so that when they’re in the store and scan our QR code, they can get the story. We want to bridge the gap between the farmer and the consumer, not only in the fashion world, but to be an example of how other farmers can bridge the gap.”
Cauffman believes that marketing is key to the future of ag, especially for small farms. “We need to think of adding value, and about alternatives,” he said. “Farmers don’t always want to think beyond the farm gate. The next step is, ‘we can market in this community.’ But we’re taking it to New York City.”
Visit Pure American Naturals on line at pureamericannaturals.com.

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