Sustainability and Progress Lead to Profitability for Lani’s Lana Fine Rambouillet Wool
CEDARVILLE, CA- A knowledge of raising sheep, and a passion for fiber arts, has led to success in the yarn business for Lani Estill and Lani’s Lana Fine Rambouillet Wool. The combination of a hardy sheep breed with fine wool, and the opportunity to create a sustainable product has driven Lani’s Lana to excellence.
Estill was a volunteer for the California Ag in the Classroom and a member of the statewide board. She decided to do a program that would be focused on wool. Through this program, she was able to go to different places with fiber arts teaching others how to scour and spin, teaching kids the process, and she became acquainted with her mentor Bonnie Chase.
From there, Lani began taking classes from Bonnie and spent time at her weaving shop in town. “I took every class I had time for as I wanted to learn as much as I could while still running the ranch and raising kids,” remarked Estill.
“I started out being involved in the sheep side of the yarn industry. We originally bought some sheep and from there I started to learn all about them as well as learning about wool,” explained Estill.
The start to the yarn business began when she and Bonnie decided to see if they could process some of the wool using small mills. They were able to get started on a larger scale with the black wool they sheared from their marker sheep. These are the black sheep in the herd that are used to track the herd easily.
“We receive a lower price for the black wool as compared to the white wool, so we thought there might be more potential in making the colored wool into yarn ourselves. We kept all the colored wool and some white that year to start our yarn line,” explained Estill.
The initial start to the business was spurred by the potential opportunity for black wool, as well as the discouragement Estill felt seeing most wool being sent to China just for the highest bid. From there Estill has strived to make sure that her wool stays in the United States when it is sold.
Estill has sells about half of her wool clip to larger companies like The North Face and Coyuchi (a California based Natural Bedding Company) as combed top, (the step before wool). This way Lani’s Lana can get into the East Coast supply chain which generally requires large minimums for access. The rest of the combed top goes to make yarn under Estill’s label.
The Bare Ranch owns around 3,000 head of Rambouillet sheep. This produces around 28-30 thousand pounds of wool a year. The grant funds Lani requested works with around 15,000 pounds of that wool.
The farm started with Rambouillet sheep in 1992 and they have continued with that breed over the years. “In some ways, the Rambouillet is really kind of the American Merino sheep. The breed has been modified over time, and the sheep are bigger here in the United States,” explained Estill.
Estill explained that Rambouillet wool is a fine wool but slightly higher in micron count than the Merino breed. Their skin is not as wrinkly as a Merino which makes shearing easier, there is more crimp to the wool and the Rambouillet herd well and thrive in the mountainous rangeland climate. Merino sheep can also tend to go wool blind because of all the wool on their face. An open face is something they can breed for with the Rambouillet.
Not only is the wool from Lani’s Lana a homegrown and US made product, it is also a sustainable product. Lani’s Lana has certified climate beneficial wool and a working carbon plan on their ranch, referred to as The Bare Ranch..
Estill was able to meet with Rebecca Burgess, the founder of the Fibershed project which started in California. The Fibershed starting with the idea and need for a mill on the west coast. The continued goal of the Fibershed is to establish a regional supply chain. In order to be a part of the Fibershed, producers have to use local labor, local fiber, and local natural dyes.
The Bare Ranch has a Carbon Farm Plan through the Fibershed. The focus of having the carbon plan in place is to make sure that the farm is being sustainable and not contributing to the climate change problem.
“Through the soil is one of the best ways we can work to effectively sequester carbon and bring it out of the air into the ground. We do a lot of carbon beneficial projects on the farm including shelterbelts, composting to draw down carbon and minimum till farming,” stated Estill.
The farms can receive a premium for their efforts and products by having certification through Fibershed. Estill sells to the North Face and the North Face donates back to Fibershed and that money can then turn into conservation projects for Fibershed members.
A Value Added Producer Grant of $102,497 was awarded to the farm in 2018. “The grant has enabled me to boldly grasp this business. I don’t think I would have been able to have gone to the risk of taking half of the wool clip and making yarn without the grant. Even if I had, it would have been a much smaller and slower pace to get it started without it,” remarked Estill.
The grant allowed Estill to lay a solid groundwork for the yarn business. She now offers wool in 4 different weights instead of just 1. She has yarn in the natural black, gray and white and was also able to take some wool and send it to be dyed with natural dye on the east coast. This will result in 9 colors for her to offer, as compared to only 3 colors she was able to make on her own last year before the grant. So, all together there are 10 yarns in 17 different colorways.
Estill remarked that the grant allowed her to lay the foundation for a successful yarn business. She now has several skews of yarn that allows her to offer a full robust line of yarn. Lani’s Lana has an online presence as well as a brick and mortar store called Warner Mountain Weavers in Cedarville. Sales are lower than she would like so she is looking into other areas of marketing and selling.
Estill is currently going to two - four trade shows a year which allows for direct sales to consumers. Her goal is to increase the presence of her yarn line in yarn stores, and to increase her presence with independent dyers.
The grant funds have allowed Estill to make some changes that will help to boost progress and growth for the business. “The grant allowed me to do things without having the pressure of taking out loans, just being able to know that I could pay the mill bills was a huge help,” stated Estill.
Sample cards of wool are being created to send out as marketing tools. Estill is using grant funds to work on her website as well as brochures and marketing materials. There is also the possibility of hiring someone to focus on marketing. Currently, Estill’s two daughters help her with the newsletter and the website.
Some future plans for the business include, growing their retail brick and mortar store in Cedarville, and maintaining their retail presence. Continued growth in the yarn line in terms of colors and dyeing more wool herself is also in the plans.
Growth in sales from the online sales is a goal as well as getting more of her products on the Fibershed website. As always, the goal to be sustainable and environmentally friendly will continue to be pursued for Lani’s Lana.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)
Ag Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) Assistance
Producers and ranchers, cooperatives and other agricultural businesses can find a wide-ranging set of tools and information to help them in pursuing VAPG funding at the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) (www.agmrc.org). On a variety of value-added topics and across products, AgMRC is a rich resource for agricultural businesses, from startup to advanced growth stages. Directories for state and federal resources, specialty crop information, legal guidance, assessment, and spreadsheet tools and other types of business training are available.