In this episode, Clara talks with Canadian wool advocate, fiber farmer, and mill owner Anna Hunter of Long Way Homestead.
Until a few years ago, Anna was happily ensconced in East Vancouver running a yarn store. But in 2015, the country beckoned. She and her husband Luke moved to Eastern Manitoba to start a family and a farm.
When she discovered there was no local mill to process her freshly shorn Shetland fleeces, she decided to build a mill herself.
Now Anna is sharing everything she learned with the next generation of wool people through her Field School. And very soon, she'll be bringing domestically sourced and manufactured wool pellets to Manitoba.
As you'll hear, Anna's goal is far larger than just her own sheep and skeins and pellets. She wants to revolutionize and revitalize the Canadian wool industry as we know it.
In the interview, we talked about Anna's life trajectory from urban yarn store owner to rural farmer, the challenges and costs (both financial and human) of starting a wool processing mill, the current limitations of the Canadian wool industry, the possibilities for the future, and her ultimate vision for a thriving regenerative textile infrastructure in Canada.
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Anna Hunter (00:03):
How do we monetize so that we can grow. And so that we can exist in an industry where our product isn't valued?
Clara Parkes (host) (00:14):
I'm Clara Parkes, and welcome to Voices in Wool, the podcast about people whose lives touch and are touched by wool. In this episode, we talked with someone who was working to rebuild a healthy interconnected, environmentally responsible and economically viable Canadian wool industry. When Anna Hunter first picked up a pair of knitting needles in 1999, while working as an au pair in Switzerland, I doubt she had any idea just how much her destiny would be changed. Let's get on with the interview.
Clara Parkes (host) (00:58):
We have a lot to unpack here. So if I'm following your correctly in 1999, you learned how to knit in 2009, you opened Baaad Anna's Yarn Store in East Vancouver. In 2015, you sold the store headed to Eastern Manitoba (Treaty 1 territory) where you bought a farm and started raising Shetland sheep for their wool and growing your own food. Even though you say you had never farmed or even gardened before we're going to talk about that because that's pretty incredible. And then in 2018, you set up a wool mill, the only small scale wool processing mill in Manitoba, and then not one to sit still in 2021 last spring, you launched an educational component to your work, which is the field school bringing in regional experts to teach about regenerative fiber farming, sustainable textile production, natural dye systems, and textile education. You do not go into anything halfway do you?
Anna Hunter (01:59):
No, no, I don't seem to. When you read it out like that, it sounds a little nuts.
Clara Parkes (host) (02:04):
Are you tired just thinking about it?
Anna Hunter (02:07):
You know, it's funny, I'm actually in a stage of real, like exciting growth, at least in the planning stages of my brain. So, you know, the last two years have been a little challenging. But I'm kind of getting out of that and looking to the future already. So maybe that just seems to be how I roll.
Clara Parkes (host) (02:24):
Hey, I'm a big one for following your heart and taking a leap without exactly knowing what you're doing and trusting that you will figure it out as you go along. To a lot of people, you are living the dream. And so that's where I'd love to start. You raise your own fiber flock, you grow your own food, you have a family, you have a mill, you're building a community. What's it really like what's an average day like. Do you have any spare time?
Anna Hunter (02:51):
I think for definitely the last 15 years, I've really set up my life for my work to also be what I love, you know. And we, my husband, Luke and I, homeschool our two boys, a really unstructured kind of homeschooling where we're, you know, really self directed. And it's given us a lot of freedom to just sort of have the life that we want. And I mean, we work really, really hard so that it feels like even the work is something that we enjoy. It's been a really, interesting and hard and challenging and an amazing experience going from urban living. And then, now raising sheep and a farm and, that whole life.
Clara Parkes (host) (03:32):
Now that's one of the questions I wanted to talk to you about. And I don't know what the culture is like, where you are, but here in Maine, in New England, if someone came from one of the coasts, you know, a notoriously warm coast and came here and decided to set up business, doing some, I don't know, growing blueberries, it would be difficult to break in. And a lot of what you're focusing on is really building community. It's not just setting up your own little silo, but pulling in as many people as you can. So how have you been received and do you have local roots that made it easier? Or how did that go?
Anna Hunter (04:10):
I guess the first thing is I'm, I'm pretty familiar with, you know, picking my life up and, and moving. And it's funny cuz as you reflected on my journey. I learned to knit in Switzerland. I grew up in Calgary, which is a different town in a Prairie province in Canada. And then I moved to Switzerland. That's where I learned to knit. My yarn store was in Vancouver, which is on the west coast and now we're in middle Canada. So, my life has really taken me all over the place and I guess I've always sought out community in all of those places and building community, regardless of whether you move around or whether you stay in one place, it's not easy. It takes a lot of work. And I think that's always been a really important priority for me, both in my personal life and in my work.
Anna Hunter (04:56):
We moved to Manitoba in 2015 and my husband family lived in Winnipeg. That was definitely part of the motivation was let's go to where we have some family and support and cousins for our boys , but really we didn't know anyone involved in the fiber community out here. It's funny that I look back on it now. I hardly remember when I didn't know anyone, but the first year and a half was definitely all about building those connections. And we moved to a small community. We didn't know anyone. And now the woman that lives half a mile away from me is my best friend. So I've been able to find people and build this community. I think maybe there was resistance, like for sure showing up and not having ever affirmed. And just saying, I'm going to try this, I'm going to do this.
Anna Hunter (05:44):
And the same thing with the wool mill. I'm sure there were some naysayers or folks that were just like, who do you think you are? But I've not really been very good at paying attention to those folks. So, I just carried on and now I feel surrounded by such a beautiful community of fiber folks, fellow shepherds and farmers and producers and wool lovers and knitters. And I think when you work to build a community, you find that there's people who also are looking for that and you can build it together.
Clara Parkes (host) (06:18):
It makes sense that you would wait a couple of years just to get your feet under you before launching into the mill part of things. Did you know, even when you moved east, that you wanted to have a mill or was that sort of a, oh, we have these sheep now, what are we going to do?
Anna Hunter (06:33):
I guess when I look back, it all makes sense. In the moment, not necessarily. When I owned Baaad Anna's, when I first opened Baaad Anna's, my plan was to have a hundred mile yarn store. So I only wanted to sell wool and yarn and fiber that had been grown within a hundred miles of the lower mainland. It took me two weeks to realize that my shelves would be empty. So I kind of put that basic idea on hold and opened up a store and focused on community building in East Vancouver and on supporting local dyers or designers. About three years into my yarn store when one of my customers came in and brought me a poster of Belfast Mini Mills. They're a company that make mini mill equipment in Prince Edward Island.
Anna Hunter (07:19):
And she said I've heard you talk about wool and about the supply chain in Canada. And I think you should look into this. I had just had my second baby. I put it in a box and never thought about it again. Things carried on, we ended up moving out to Manitoba and started our farm. At our first shearing, I went to go get our wool processed and realized, oh, there's no mill in Manitoba. I don't know why I didn't look into that in the beginning, but I just sort of assumed there would be. And there wasn't. So, thankfully I had access to a wonderful mill in North Dakota and a fantastic owner, Chris, who just did a fantastic job. And then, I don't know, maybe serendipitously I was unpacking an old box and I found that poster and I actually tacked it up onto the wall in my little sewing office.
Anna Hunter (08:06):
And I just wrote on it: this is the goal. What are you doing to get to this? And my husband, Luke, is fantastic and amazing, and he's not a public guy. He doesn't like to use social media or be the face of the business, but none of this would happen without him. But I have to say that every time, whether it's at the breakfast table or if we're hanging out this new idea, I can just literally see his brain explode and steam starts coming out of his ears and he's like, oh my goodness, what am I going to be roped into next? So that kind of happened with the mill. I was like, I think I know what we need to do. It was about 18 months later that the equipment arrived. So it was maybe always the plan, but I didn't fully know it.
Clara Parkes (host) (08:49):
The poster was just waiting for you to find it.
Anna Hunter (08:52):
Clara Parkes (host) (09:04):
Let's talk about the mill. So you have a Belfast Mini Mill. What is your production capacity at this point? Like how much can you process per week?
Anna Hunter (09:13):
We're processing about 280 pounds a month right now. So I break it down more by the month, because our weeks are also dependent on what's happening on the farm and with animals and what not. It feels, I mean, oftentimes people will refer to mini mills as like a "cottage industry." I despise that terminology because nothing that we're doing is like a cottage industry. We are in full-on production. And unfortunately the capacity of the equipment and also the bottleneck for us, which is scouring, which I think is a shared experience by many mill owners and wool enthusiasts in both Canada and the US. The scouring is really this big bottleneck that we can't get over. So, yes, we do about 70% of our own production. Like for retail, we run a breed-specific study, which has actually exploded in the last two years, which I'm very excited about because talking about sheep breeds has really become a main pillar of my business and my passion.
Anna Hunter (10:14):
And then about 30% we process wool for other farmers. And from the very beginning I wanted to have a mill that made it easier for other shepherds and farmers to get their wool to market. And I've done a lot of research and advocacy within the Canadian wool industry and with other farmers and one of the biggest things is access to processing. The wait times are long, the shipping is expensive. The price of processing is high. And then ultimately that affects their ability to get it to market. You know, I wish that, I mean, I guess maybe if I was looking at my wall again with my big goals, one of those would be to have a mill that is completely custom processing just to make it accessible to other farmers.
Clara Parkes (host) (11:05):
I know that you have a really big commitment to local. So if I were say from New Brunswick and I contacted you and said, I want you to process my wool would you suggest that I stay local? Or would you like, what is your concept of local or whose business would it make sense for you to accept?
Anna Hunter (11:24):
I mean, I guess it depends. We have some fantastic mini mills across the country and we do have two sort of medium, large size mills. So I think always, I would encourage someone to seek out what's in their own community, partly just because shipping wool across our huge land base is so expensive, but I know also people want that connection and I think I've succeeded in some ways at getting the work that we're doing out into the bigger industry. I could understand if someone wanted to be connected to that or use our mill for some reason and I wouldn't turn them away. I think when we talk about local, there's so many layers of that. I think what I end on is we're all just doing the best we can, and we could talk about that in so many ways, but I have to feed my family and feed my sheep.
Anna Hunter (12:13):
And so, what are the compromises I make in my own business to be able to pay the bills and how does that conflict with my environmental values as a business? So I ship my yarn vacuum sealed in plastic and unfortunately that's one of those compromises that I've had to make. I view that same thing with local. If we could avoid shipping and burning those fossil fuels to get wool all over the country and all over the continent, that would be ideal. At the same time, it's better than having our wool shipped all the way across the world, which is where most of Canadian wool goes. So yeah, I guess it's just about the layers of local.
Clara Parkes (host) (12:52):
The layers of local. I love that because I do. I think that there's ethical local, which isn't necessarily geographical, but if someone is really interested in the same principles that you have and the same just environmental values or aesthetic values, or you can't just sit down at a map and draw a circle and say "no!" to outside of that. There are many, many more layers to it. Do you have other employees, or is it you and Luke? Have you taught the kids how to operate the equipment yet?
Anna Hunter (13:25):
The boys always laugh that they will be running a wool mill at some point soon, but at this point it's just, it's just Luke and myself. I have a woman that comes and does a lot of my finishing like winding things into skeins, labeling and shipping; she comes once a week. I'm really hoping this summer that we can add, another full-time employee. I think we were maybe at that stage right before the pandemic, but that changed our ability and we live rurally. I think rural economic development is another pillar of my business: how can we build a business that engages and meaningfully employs folks in rural communities where there is such economic devastation or deserts, basically. I would like to see that and as the mill and our business grows, I would love to see that. But at this point it's just Luke and I. We're a really good team and I think we sometimes wonder how that'll shift once we bring someone else into the mix.
Clara Parkes (host) (14:24):
And how far do you see this scaling or, and are you even interested in that?
Anna Hunter (14:29):
Yes, a hundred percent. I'm interested in scaling. I'm a big dreamer and a big thinker. I mean, if I was to shoot the moon, if I was to just say, this is exactly what I want, I would love to see a more regional approach to wool processing in Canada. Most of our fine wools are grown in the Prairie provinces because they are range breeds and they do really well in this landscape. And so if we look at improving our textile manufacturing with those fine wools, then environmentally, it just makes sense to develop that in our region. So, I mean, I would love to see a regional scouring facility, more wool processing, and then obviously even some textile production. I don't think that's something that our small little business necessarily wants to take on, but it's something that I want to be a part of in the bigger conversation and collaborating with others and making that happen.
Anna Hunter (15:24):
When we started the farm, I basically spent a winter reading everything I could get my hands on about raising sheep. And I visited a few other sheep farmers with really different management styles, some small focusing only on wool, some really big pasture-based operations that were doing a combination of wool and meat. And then some intensive operations, the more indoors meat, heavy operations. And then I just sort of jumped into it and have made a lot of mistakes along the way, but have really figured it out as we went along. There was nothing out there specifically guiding brand new woolfarmers. And then the same thing with the mill. I was thankful for Chris in North Dakota who wais very generous with her time and energy and gave me some answers and guidelines. But I could not find a single mill that I could go and learn at or apprentice at or get those skills from. I think my biggest passion is helping others that want to go down this road, avoid that trial by error or whatever process, and actually have access to that learning and that education. That's really where I see our business going -- helping others get started and creating learning opportunities, especially in the context of regenerative agriculture or soil-to-soil Fibershed-style textile processing.
Clara Parkes (host) (16:50):
And that was the impetus for starting the Field School.
Anna Hunter (16:54):
Yes, that was the impetus. I would like to have a full-time hands on learning center field school, but starting that in the time of COVID is a little bit different. So we started it mostly just with online workshops. How can we take some of these concepts and teach them online? And, you know, this year we're expanding our workshops and offerings and doing quite a bit more hands-on. We're running our first apprenticeship this summer. I see this more as a long-term kind of project, but that's where we're headed.
Clara Parkes (host) (17:26):
It's kind of a revolution from the knitter up, in a way. You are interested in connecting local producers with the consumer, but you would be open to -- somewhere down the line -- someone else taking over and creating like the Manitoba Sweater Company. OOr really scaling it to not just people who make their own clothing, but actual larger-scale manufacturers.
Anna Hunter (17:52):
A hundred percent. My start in this was as a passionate knitter. And I ran a retail store for knitting and crocheting. And I, I love that side of it. But when I look at the future of wool and I look at the future of sheep farming and even the future of our climate, I think a massive overhaul of our entire textile industry is what is necessary. And I see wool as the, the impetus for that. There's just so much opportunity for using wool as a textile and all that it brings to the table as a textile, but also the way that sheep management can be such a tool for sequestering carbon, for building soil health, for helping reduce the impact of climate change. And I think if we can, you know, basically revolutionize the way we use wool in Canada, we could see some real shifts. So we could see some real growth in that industry. I think my goal is bigger than the kniting and crocheting and spinning world. Although I think there's so much passion in that industry that we need to harness that on the bigger scale.
Clara Parkes (host) (18:57):
Yeah. It's almost like you're creating an army of advocates. Because every single person who knits, they have a huge community of people around them who don't, but who they interact with every single day. They're like a secret weapon, because nobody knows.
Anna Hunter (19:12):
It's true. And there is a real disconnect. And I imagine it's, it's somewhat similar in the US. But in Canada, you know, we've got these two separate silos of people. We've got all these shepherds and we've got all these sheep farmers and we've got these organizations federally and provincially that promote the sheep industry. But they're so disconnected from this huge industry of knitters and crocheters and spinners and felters and weavers. And, you know, whenever there's a shepherd or someone that isn't involved in that comes to a fiber festival or to a Knit City event or something like that, they're blown away by how many people are using wool. And unfortunately it's just not wool that's grown and manufactured here. And that's where I think there's a lot of possibility.
Clara Parkes (host) (19:59):
Definitely, definitely possibility. And if anything I'd like to hope we've learned from the last couple of years is that a tenuous supply chain has serious consequences. There are reasons to bring more production back. And in Canada, it's right that you really do have the full spectrum of breeds at your disposal. I wanted to ask you how have you chosen which breeds to support. And since people can join at any time, are you seeing a cap for memberships? Or how are are you going to manage the supply since these are flocks that are shorn once a year and that's that.
Anna Hunter (20:39):
That's a really good question. I feel like I'll know the cap when it hits. And that's basically just because I won't have access to that much wool or production, I suppose. You know, when I, when I had my yarn store, I could probably name three breeds, like Merino, BFL, and Corriedale. That was probably all I knew. And once I started diving into it, I was just blown away by how many sheep breeds there were, how many sheep breeds existed in Canada, and then obviously all the different characteristics of all the wool, right? The difference between a long and a fine wool or a down wool. And I'm still on a journey and discovering more, which is so lovely that I have it at my disposal. So I think I've tried to focus on breeds that are -- this comes back to the local--that I can access.
Anna Hunter (21:27):
So 90% of my breed study, I get it from Manitoba. And this has created some beautiful relationships with farmers that up to this point were not doing anything with their wool. And it's kind of helped create this tiny microcosm of, you know, regional wool prosperity because these farmers who were previously either composting their wool or sending it to Wool Growers for 35 cents a pound are now selling it to my mill for a really good rate per pound. And then from that creating contacts with users who will then purchase raw fleece from them individually. So, you know, I've really tried to source it from, from farmers here, especially farmers that are focusing pn pasture-based operations. I haven't limited it to fine wool. So we have a few farmers that raise longwool breeds, which is excellent. But I've done also a lot of really exciting stuff with some of the meat breeds or the dual purpose breeds. So, really bringing that to the forefront of, maybe this isn't the softest stuff that you wanna put on your baby, but it certainly works for a sweater or mittens or, you know, a super drapey shawl. What are the possibilities with these breeds that we have probably not ever even heard of?
Clara Parkes (host) (22:41):
And that comes back to education, that there is not one, one-size-fits-all sheep that produces one kind of wool, that's it, period. End of story. And the more, you know, just the more layers of the onion, you discover. It really... You you'll never be bored. Ever.
Anna Hunter (22:57):
Right. It's so true.
Clara Parkes (host) (22:59):
So I'm interested... you talked about the grades of wool that aren't necessarily pajama grade, right? Where do you see the opportunity--and this might get into your most recent investment--but where do you see the opportunity for using that wool, for bringing value to that wool, which isn't necessarily, you know...
Anna Hunter (23:19):
Clara Parkes (host) (23:21):
Anna Hunter (23:22):
That's usually how I differentiate it is "textile quality," being, you know, those more fine-wool breeds. And that's a really good question. And this is what faces the wool industry in Canada, across the board, is the majority of our sheep flocks are being raised for meat consumption. And the wool is not textile quality and it's very dirty. And I, you know, I think this has been a barrier to a domestic industry growing is that we don't have the infrastructure and our wool is really dirty, and it doesn't find a good price on the international market. So what can we do locally? Well, I think there's a few options. I'm super motivated by the idea of wool insulation. And I, I think in the states you guys have a few companies that are doing a good job of that. And I think there is a solid group of individuals in Canada who are working to launch a campaign to make that a reality, the biggest barrier being that it's not already in our building code.
Anna Hunter (24:18):
So an application to change our building code would be one of the first steps. Oh,The second one, obviously being that it still needs to be scoured when it uses, when you're using wool's insulation, but, you know, so I think there's two conversations. One is what do we do with the wool that we have now, and that wool that needs to be scoured. And then there's a conversation around what can we do with the wool that we have now that doesn't need to be scoured. And so that's where some new ideas around wool, including wool pellets, which is probably what you're referring to.
Clara Parkes (host) (24:48):
Anna Hunter (24:49):
You know, so lots of individuals, lots of farmers have been using wool in their gardens for decades, right? Either as mulch or to put around the base of tomato plants to prevent cutworms or to stabilize a path that usually gets a lot of water runoff or whatever.
Anna Hunter (25:04):
And I think that is a new movement now to sort of make that a marketable product. I have given away bags of our waste wool from our mill. So it's the really dirty wool. The wool that is filled with veggie matter or manure tags, or just too much lanolin, it's just too gross to even try and wash. So, you know, I've given away bags of that to folks that wanna use it as mulch in their garden. But it's not a super marketable product. So there's been a lot of work done originating out of the states, as far as I know, to pelletize it. So running it through a pelleting machine, turning it into a wool pellet, and then it can be easily applied to our garden. And when we use wool in our garden, there's so many advantage. It adds aeration to the soil.
Anna Hunter (25:49):
It adds water holding capacity. Wool can hold up to 30% of its own weight in water. So it will hold onto that moisture and then release it when it's dry, which means less watering. It's a pest repellent, especially with slugs or cutworms, and then it's slow release nitrogen and other nutrients. So it's taking those, you know, nutrients and adding them back to the soil and contributing to the growth of our plants. So I am not the first to do it, but I'm excited to start doing that. And to use that as an opportunity to go zero-waste with our mill, we're hoping that that will reduce any of our waste wool by turning it into another product. But also as an inroad to work with farmers who thus far are literally making $0 on their wool clip every year, because it it's rejected, or it's not worth anything from wool growers. And so they just discard it. So we'll be keeping wool out of the landfill. We'll be paying farmers a rate that hopefully motivates them to work harder at producing better wall.
Clara Parkes (host) (27:07):
I was looking at some statistics through statistics, Canada about the average price of raw woo paid to producers. And it is on a steady downwards from like a dollar 54 Canadian in 2015 down to 88 cents in 2019. And it's probably gone down even even more so, so this is, this is potentially transformative for these people.
Anna Hunter (27:28):
I hope so. I hope that's the outcome. Wool is just, wool is not an agricultural commodity in Canada. It is not viewed as an agricul commodity. It's viewed as a byproduct. And so at every level of our infrastructure and approach to wool, it's not valued. And that attitude has most definitely impacted the way that the majority of our sheep farmers approach their wool. And obviously there's exceptions. There's incredible farmers growing incredible wool. But I would say the large majority are seeing it as an offset to the cost of feed in cold months, rather than something that could be a viable revenue stream for them. So I really am hopeful that this is the beginning of a shift, even if it's just a small regional shift. Once I kind of announced that we were going to start this wool pellet project, I've had farmers reaching out to me, like, let me drop off my wool.
Anna Hunter (28:18):
They don't even want money for it. They just don't wanna have to deal with trying to compost it. The reality of being able to pay them double or triple what Wool Growers is paying, I'm hoping, will be an inroad for me to say, Hey, you know, you've got pretty good quality wool. If it was a little bit cleaner, I would pay you even double that. Let's talk about some very simple management changes that you can make to keep it more clean, or, you know, why don't you call our local Fibershed, have them come out on sharing day and help you skirt and sort your wool. So, you know, you can get a better rate for it. So I'm hoping that this will be an inroad. That's the goal.
Clara Parkes (host) (28:56):
So how have the pellets been received commercially? Where... Are you marketing them just within your circle? Do you have outlets for them or what are you doing?
Anna Hunter (29:05):
We are just starting. We don't even have any pellets to market yet. We had some equipment made, especially for this. And we're working with some provincial researchers to do some actual testing on, you know, how they function in our zone-three soils and gardens. So I, you know, we're hoping for a launch of April 1st. That that is our intention. I am slowly working to reach out to greenhouses and local garden centers and get it on the shelf in retail. I was kinda like, I can only add a new side to our business if I don't have to do the hustle. So I was like, that's great. I'll just make the pellets and I'll sell 'em at greenhouses and that'll be it. But I've just had actually more people reach out to me and say like, oh, you know, we wanna get it from you.
Anna Hunter (29:51):
And can you come to our farm and pelletize our wool. So we're, we're still kind of just imagining how this is all going to work out. But, um, we'll be at our local farmer's market sort of doing bulk wool pellets. And I'm actually just more excited about, if it hasn't come through, my passion is really the education and advocacy. I had to put some skin in the game to be able to talk from a place of understanding. But really my goal is to change hearts and mind. So I'm really excited about going to a farmer's market and saying, you know, here is a product that is recycling nutrients, it is replacing any synthetic fertilizers or anything synthetic, or peat, which is a whole other conversation. And it's building into our local agriculture industry by paying farmers what it's worth. And having that conversation and, and getting it into the hands of folks. So, yeah, we'll see how it goes. This is kind of a tester year to test the local market. I've had people all across Canada ask about carrying my pellets in their shops. I'm actually just trying to work with other innovators and farmers across the country to do it themselves. I don't wanna be the wool pellet empire in Canada. I would really love to see other farmers doing it because I think there's room in the industry for, you know, little pelleting operations all across the country.
Clara Parkes (host) (31:12):
Oh, totally. I think there's huge opportunity for towns or even cities where they have large tracks of land that need management. You bring in a flock of sheep, and then you pelletize the wool, and you use that instead of synthetic fertilizers for your parks. It just, it makes so much sense.
Anna Hunter (31:29):
Yeah. We'll see where it goes. It's kind of an exciting moment.
Clara Parkes (host) (31:33):
Now you said... We're going to circle back to scouring. You said that's, that is the bottom like here as well. So what is the commercial scouring situation like in Canada. And you're doing your scouring yourself?
Anna Hunter (31:44):
Yes. Um. [Laughter.] I laugh cuz I mean, it. It is really just a shit show. I'm not sure if I can say that on your podcast, but it is.
Clara Parkes (host) (31:54):
Anna Hunter (31:56):
Our mill is in our garage. A lot of people I think don't really understand how we have just like made things happen with tape and glue here. You know, when we started the mill, we were like, okay, we'll build a new building. But then we're going to have to dig a new well and put new electric, like a new electrical line. That's going to put us back half a year just to be able to find some capital to build a new building. So we're like we can fit it in our garage. And so, you know, our cars now survive the winter outside, and our entire mill operation is in the garage. Which means our scouring operation is running off of the hot water tank from our house.
Clara Parkes (host) (32:34):
Anna Hunter (32:35):
So, you know, we cranked it up so high that whenever we have any visitors to the house, we have to warn them not to turn the hot water on all the way, cuz they'll scald their hands and we use induction burners to boil water.
Anna Hunter (32:47):
And we're getting by with that setup. There are no commercial scouring facilities in Canada at all. So every single mill that operates, whether it's a medium, large mill, or a minimi is doing their scouring on-site or in a similar smaller operation. So there's nothing. And so that is, I mean, this is the whole vision behind a regional scouring facility. Even if we just had one medium size scouring plant, it would change the amount of production for every mill at every level. Plus I think it would encourage new infrastructure, like a carding mill to just simply make insulation. So that is kind of where the situation is.
Clara Parkes (host) (33:32):
Yeah. Are there any ideals that you went into this with that as you got deeper, you realized you were going to have to compromise on if you wanted to move forward or get bigger or expand? What would they be? Or are you not, are you refusing to compromise? Plastic, plastic bags, that's what it was.
Anna Hunter (33:51):
Yeah. You know, although another, um, generous person in the industry just told me about some fully compostable vacuum seal bags, which I'm very excited to try out. So, you know, that's, that's a really good question. And I'm just kind of thinking about what we've had to compromise on. And um, I guess I do see myself as a very principled person. And, maybe it used to get in the way? But I don't know. I'm maybe this is a risk to say it. But I also think we need to talk about it more. I went into this from a place of passion in terms of like, I'm going to change the wool industry in Canada. And I'm going to start by opening a mill and connecting producers with consumers. And that was the, I mean, if I boiled it all down, that was the place that I started from.
Anna Hunter (34:40):
And I think what was maybe missing was, "and I'm also going to support my family on this." It is a hard business, and it is a hard industry. Especially if you are not doing conventional farming. Ad there's so much extra work that's involved in direct marketing your products, or creating value-added products. And then fiber farming is an even smaller, unique niche that takes so much work. And then manufacturing is another full beast. And we kind of took both of those on. And I think if I looked back, I think I was maybe not eyes-wide-open around the cost, both in capital and in time.
Anna Hunter (35:49):
Right before the pandemic, we were kind of wondering if this was something we could even keep going on. It was just, you know, and opening up a mill. And I mean, this is another impetus for Field School. It took us about 18 months of just learning of getting to a point where we were like, okay, now we know what we're doing. We can solve problems. We can fix machines, we can make a reliable product. But that was 18 months of having to pay a mortgage and buy hay and, you know, take my kids to the pool every once in a while.
Clara Parkes (host) (36:19):
Right. Learning without having a product to sell yet.
Anna Hunter (36:22):
Exactly. So I think, I think maybe that has been something I've had to reconsider going forward is how do we monetize so that we can grow and so that we can exist in an industry where our product isn't valued? And where the work isn't valued. I mean, I do this lecture called the true cost of wool because I don't think knitters, or most of us, we don't understand what actually goes into producing our wool. My opening line is I talk about how all the secondary follicles are developed in the last two months of pregnancy. And so as a wool farmer, I'm thinking about the quality of my wool 18 months before that lamb is ever shared, because I'm thinking about how healthy its mom is.
Anna Hunter (37:14):
And so if we attached monetary value to that sort of work, we would realize that our yarn that we pick up in our local yarn store is highly underpriced, given how much work it takes to, to get it there. And so, you know, I think that is maybe the shift. It's funny to be an anti-capitalist entrepreneur and farmer. And I mean, my husband jokes that I now own the means of production, where I spent most of my twenties fighting people who own the means of production. I've really had this shift on how we can have principled businesses based on environmental and social values and also how to make it financially viable and successful.
Clara Parkes (host) (38:01):
No, and I appreciate you being honest about this because I think to a lot of people from the outside, it looks like you're living the dream. You get to play with yarn all day long and clearly the money just slides right into your pocket because you're still doing it. When the truth is far shakyier and there's way more work involved.
Anna Hunter (38:24):
Clara Parkes (host) (38:24):
Is there, is there anything, if you were to step into this again, is there anything you would do differently? Or do you not know yet?
Anna Hunter (38:36):
Well, you know, to be honest, I think if we could start again knowing what we know now, we, we might, we might not have done it. Just, just because... I'm referring to the mill, specifically. The farming, every minute of farming we love. Even doing chores in minus 35 blizzards or in plus 35 heat waves, droughts, the relationship with animals, and the connection to food and fiber is irreplaceable. Like, I, I just it's, it's unbelievable. I, I kind of can't even remember a time when that wasn't my reality. So, but the mill, you know, I think, well, okay, so maybe the answer is I wouldn't have tried to, to go it alone with just Luke. Maybe at that point, I would've tried to say, okay, this is something our community and our industry needs.
Anna Hunter (39:37):
We're willing to invest time and energy and learning and our space and our home and our schedule and all these things, who else is willing to invest? And I mean, maybe that's part of, maybe that is a naive idea to think that communities of people are willing to invest resources or energy or graphic design or websites, you know, like come together to build up an industry. Maybe that's a naive idea, but I, I cling to it that it's not. And so maybe that's how I would've done it a little bit differently.
Clara Parkes (host) (40:08):
And is that advice that you would give to someone who comes to you today, who says, I dream of having your life, and I really wanna start a mill. I know that you actually have, this is one of the classes that you teach in Field School is, okay, you wanna do it? Let's walk you through. What advice, right out of the gate, would you give someone who comes to you saying, I have this dream, what do I do? Should I do it?
Anna Hunter (40:31):
Yeah. I, I mean, I think my biggest piece of advice would be, make sure that financially you can survive for two years without bringing in an income from this mill. If you can do that, or if you can leverage capital to start a business like this, then you're good. Because we need to be able to make the mistakes and have the learning that can only come from hours and hours of time in a mill without the pressure of having a financially viable business right off the start. And again, how do we get that learning if there's no apprenticeships? You know, you can't go to a college, a community college or a technical college and learn how to operate a wool mill.
Clara Parkes (host) (41:15):
No, you can't.
Anna Hunter (41:15):
There's nothing like that. And what other manufacturing industry do we expect people just to start from zero? That just seems absurd to me. So, without programs that are willing to let people apprentice and learn those skills, then we need to come up with more creative ways to allow that learning and education to happen, you know, without the pressure.
Clara Parkes (host) (41:39):
And in your case, you were able to practice on your own wool. I think that's part of what makes me really nervous is when people say, "I'm starting a mill and in six months we're going to be up and running and taking orders!" And I just feel like, well, you're going to be practicing on my wool. You really do, like you say, two years and part of your capital investment is going to have to be on practice wool. So what kind of capital investment, how much are we even talking? In comparison to tech or these other industries where you're talking like $5 billion. It's not a huge chunk, but for people it is right. Is it six figures?
Anna Hunter (42:16):
Yeah. I love that we're talking about this. I think, unfortunately, we don't talk enough about the finances of these sorts of things. I don't know if that was like a socialized thing that we just like, don't talk about money? But I think we need to have these open, upfront conversation. So our mill cost us $250,000. For the equipment and for, I mean, the Belfast, again, a fantastic company. The training, the installation. They're amazing. So, and that was just for the equipment installation. You know, we bought, we bought a CCAN trailer. Those old shipping, like decommissioned shipping containers? So my husband's a carpenter by trade. And so he built a little walk-in yarn store at the front of it, but the back of it is all raw wool storage.
Anna Hunter (43:05):
So it's, I mean, it's, it's a full experience. You come in to buy yarn and you smell raw wool. It's beautiful. So, you know, so we had to get that. We to actually purchase all this practice wool.
Clara Parkes (host) (43:17):
Anna Hunter (43:17):
So I mean, that was just the upfront cost. And we were able to, I was able to access some loans from organizations that help women-headed businesses, which was amazing and awesome because, you know, traditional banks probably wouldn't have financed something like that. But I think, I mean that that's for mini mill. I think you're looking at much bigger costs if we're talking about anything bigger.
Clara Parkes (host) (43:42):
Anna Hunter (43:42):
I think, I think we would be looking at about 2 million dollars for a regional scouring facility. That's sort of what the numbers that we, that we have looked at that we have been talking about a few of us in, in Western Canada.
Clara Parkes (host) (43:54):
So if we have any capitalist out there with an altruistic spirit? Talk about an investment that would have a tremendous ripple effect.
Anna Hunter (44:02):
Yeah. And you know, I like, I have a lot of hope Clara, that there is a different way of financing this industry and, and these sorts of projects. And I think Fibershed in California is doing some incredible work around that and around creating capital in a way that isn't exploitative and isn't, it is sort of invested for the long run. And I guess where I'm at is we won't find it until we start talking about it. So, you know, I'm not ready to open a scouring facility anytime soon, but I am going to talk about it every chance I get, because chances are the more people that hear about it, the more people will be inspired to get on board.
Clara Parkes (host) (44:39):
Absolutely. That would be an opportunity. You would have a monopoly. Not you, but someone. If you ever dreamt of being the scouring queen, you could actually...
Anna Hunter (44:48):
Clara Parkes (host) (44:49):
Have your empire! The money that is spent shipping dirt across the country, across the world, it's mind boggling. So the more local we can make it, it makes a lot of sense.
Anna Hunter (45:02):
We've seen the fragility of our supply chains and how quickly everything can shut down. And, you know, I think in some ways we're either going to be forced into a position where we have to deal with these resources on our own. Or we can think ahead and we can start building in resilience and create it as an economic hub in our regions.
Clara Parkes (host) (45:25):
There's tremendous opportunity. So clearly, and I love this about you. You are a woman with big dreams, right. So you're always thinking ahead and looking ahead. So I have to end our conversation by facing our heads in whatever direction, the future, I don't even know north, south, east, west. What is next for Anna? What is on your horizon?
Anna Hunter (45:48):
Um, I, I guess that's a complicated question
Clara Parkes (host) (45:55):
That you can talk about, how's that?
Anna Hunter (45:56):
No, it's not that. Luke teases me that he's like, once you say something out loud, it has to become reality, like in, my mind. Right? So sometimes he's like, just be careful what you start talking about. That's the cause of my pause is that the decisions that a dreamer makes has ripple effect on that dreamer's family.
Clara Parkes (host) (46:22):
Definitely. So what can you safely talk about?
Anna Hunter (46:25):
So we are in a bit of a stay the course pattern with our mill. We, we want to, you know, finish paying off the loans that we have on our equipment and we are starting to plan for the next scaling up. So what does that mean? Well, definitely the field school is an important part of that. I would love to have facilities for people to train and learn all year long, including an artist in residency program. I would love to add different types of processing to our operations. So currently we're just a vertically integrated wool processing mill, but we don't have any weaving, uh, like industrial weaving equipment or industrial knitting equipment. So I would love to start producing actual textiles, to start replacing the textiles that we are importing from elsewhere. And I would like to basically create a flagship product that is based on wool, grown on regenerative farms in Western Canada, and producing a product that is accessible to Canadians.
Clara Parkes (host) (47:32):
I'd say, considering the work you've done this far, that all seems very achievable. And I love that so much of your focus, isn't just on you doing this stuff, but it's on helping other people join in this industry with you and strengthen it from wherever they are.
Anna Hunter (47:48):
Yeah. The education, the learning I've recently launched, uh, a website that is a passion project of mine. It's not part of the business called CanadianWool.org. And it is a way to connect consumers with the farmers and the producers. So, you know, this is our business, but I also see great opportunity and need for all fiber farmers across the country to grow and to have an easier time marketing their product.
Clara Parkes (host) (48:14):
Yeah. So for listeners who wanna support you and support your work, how can they support you?
Anna Hunter (48:20):
So we do have an online shop. Again, our breed specific study is sort of our main product that we're focusing on right now. And the wool pellets. I am writing, uh, a book that sort of looks at the history of textile production.
Clara Parkes (host) (48:33):
Yay. That's wonderful!
Anna Hunter (48:34):
Thank you, Clara. You, uh, inspired me many years ago and I haven't been able to get it outta my mind. So I'm working on a book.
Clara Parkes (host) (48:40):
Oh, I'm so excited
Anna Hunter (48:41):
I do have a Patreon page that is basically a way to support the industry research I'm doing. I did a big, huge sheep and wool survey last year, and I'm doing a wool mill inventory research project this year, just looking at the existing infrastructure and the gaps that we have. So my Patreon is a place for people to support that work without, um, getting a product in return. There's lots of, you know, wonderful tidbits of information that come on that Patreon. And then definitely for folks that are going to be doing more traveling, we run farm tours and mill tours, and we love people coming to visit the farm and meet our sheep and see what we're up to.
Clara Parkes (host) (49:21):
Perfect. I love it. Anna it has been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
Anna Hunter (49:26):
Well, thanks for having me. It's been a real honor.
Clara Parkes (host) (49:30):
This has a conversation with Anna Hunter who along with her husband, Luke, runs Long Way Homestead in East Manitoba, Treaty 1 territory, Canada. Anna's work revolves around running a farm, a small-scale wool processing mill, a wool education and advocacy program. And coming soon, wool pellets. You'll find links to Anna and her work in the show notes.
Clara Parkes (host) (49:57):
Voices in Wool is made possible by members of The Wool Channel, a platform, publication, and community dedicated to giving wool a voice in the world. To find out more, including how you, too, can join the flock, go to the wool channel I'm Clara parks, and until next time. Bye bye.