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Driftless Traditional Tannery -- Honoring Our Animals with Natural Hide Processing

by Hawthorn McCracken, WFU Communications Intern

“The thing that brought me here is the thing that takes me anywhere – food. I wanted to have a closer relationship with my food. Was the practice of raising the animals respectful? Did they live well? Did they die well? At slaughter time, I wanted to honor the life I was taking.” Brandi Bonde

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many of the underlying issues in our industrial meat system. The bottleneck created by a corporate-owned meat processing infrastructure has frustrated farmers and consumers alike, but the problems with processing have been going on long before 2020. Corporate control of meat infrastructure makes it difficult for farmers to get fair prices for their animals. Industrial meat’s focus on grocery-store-ready cuts and quick processing favors uniformity, making heritage breeds or pasture grazed animals a low priority. 

It also creates a lot of unnecessary waste. Parts of the animal that, in a traditional society, might be used for tools, materials, or food are simply thrown out. Many foodies and farmers are rethinking what these systems should look like, and a group of dedicated farmers in Green County are working to fill a gap that most consumers are unaware of -- natural, non-toxic hide processing.

When Brandi Bonde, Danielle Dockery, and Bethany Emond Storm got together to harvest their sheep and goats in the fall of 2019, they shared their frustration with the lack of traditional hide processing in their area. The only tannery within reasonable distance was an industrial operation that made use of heavy metals and harsh chemical processes, leaving their animals’ pelts with a strong odor that took months to dissipate.

“Every year we’d organize a group to get our hides tanned. We went to pick them up, and I was so glad to have my animals back. Their spirit is there in the hides, it was like welcoming them back home. I remember LindaDee Derrickson, who has been my sheep mentor for years, saying, ‘Of all the things I do to live clean, I hate this part. But it’s the only way to get my animals back.’ I ruminated on that. Was it really the only way? When I slaughtered last fall, I shared hides with Brandi and Danielle. The conversation just started,” Bethany explained. “We couldn’t find any place that processed hides naturally outside of Sweden. Brandi found a place in Vermont that was offering to sell their process and materials, but it was far too expensive. We said, well why can’t we just do it ourselves here? So we did.” After some research, and a lot of practice, Driftless Traditional Tannery was born. 

The team has had passionate support from their Soil Sisters connections, the Small Business Development Center, and community members. Their relationships with local butchers have been key. They rescued many hides destined for the trash, saving the butchers money on disposal fees and creating a beautiful product in the process. Danielle said, “People really want us to do this. There’s been so much serendipity in the last year. We have all had outside jobs during this process, but we don’t want to do anything else.”

LindaDee Derrickson added, “For 25 years, I’ve pined for a local, environmentally conscious tannery. Anyone who has researched this knows they are few and far between. None in the Midwest that I’m aware of. Tanning the old fashioned way is labor-intensive, and there aren’t classes to learn how to do it on a business scale. But now my wishes have been fulfilled—HERE…. HERE in Green County, Wisconsin. I couldn’t be more ecstatic. And maybe a smidgeon proud that my yearnings have helped manifest this reality.”

Danielle, Bethany, and their husbands set up a climate-controlled hide room in Brandi’s barn in the space of an afternoon. The farmers connected with a retiring taxidermist from Michigan  -- doctors told him that the chromium in his tanning process had contributed to the cancer he was now battling. He was willing to provide a few days of training along with the sale of his equipment. His massive tumbler now dominates Brandi’s barn -- it’s used to condition the finished pelts so they’re soft and supple. 

It’s taken quite a bit of trial and error to find a tanning process that works for them. “Recipe is key. No one will share 100% of their process. We have to figure out what works for our water, our climate, and our hides,” Bethany said. Their current process starts with a salt cure. After the cured hides are scraped and cleaned, they are pickled in citric acid and alum. Then they are neutralized with baking soda, stretched, dried, and treated with natural oils. Most pelts keep their coats unless they are to be used for drum-making or leathercraft. The team has been experimenting with bark tanning as well, which can create beautiful brown, red, or black tones in the finished pelt. 

So far their biggest byproduct has been saltwater. “We farm with respect to soil and water quality, and we want to do business the same way. Living on a wetland, we’re trying to be mindful of how this byproduct is disposed of. We’ve been using it as herbicide on our fencerows and asparagus beds,” Brandi said. Hide scraps and fleshy bits removed during processing have found their home in a compost pile, which also serves to naturally clean the skulls of their animals. 

The trio has relied on used materials and do-it-yourself tools, including a homemade sanding table and a smaller tumbler with wire sides for fluffing wooly sheepskin (complements of Brandi’s engineer husband). By keeping costs low and selling their imperfect practice hides, they’ve been able to build up their customer base and invest carefully in infrastructure with little debt. While they’ve enjoyed using Brandi’s basement and barn rent-free, the team is looking forward to moving into a new workshop. With more climate control and square footage, the variable process of cleaning and drying natural hides will be much easier, especially in the busy fall and winter months. Starting in October, they will be partnering with fellow Soil Sisters Anna Landmark and Anna Thomas Bates of Landmark Creamery in Paoli for an expanded warehouse space.

“Pelts from Driftless Tannery will not look or smell like industrial, whiter than white, pelts. They are beautifully different and wholesome with the natural feel and look of sheep and goats. This is the way our ancestors made wearable hides, dwelling covers, rugs, purses, and all sorts of leather goods throughout the world, and in many cultures. No question, they will be tanning my heritage sheep hides. And I will have a clear conscience about the environment and a happy heart that I’m supporting a local business and farmers in Southwest Wisconsin,” said LindaDee. 

Driftless Traditional Tannery is now accepting goat and sheep hides for processing, and they look forward to providing the region with beautiful products and custom services. 

To learn more about Driftless Traditional Tannery visit their website: Follow them on Instagram and Facebook for product updates and delightful photographs. 

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