"My love for fiber and knitting started as a tiny kid," Jane Hansen recalls. "Gram taught me to knit, and I joke that I've been at it ever since I was old enough to hold the knitting needles."
Fast-forward, and what once was a mere hobby has blossomed into a fiber enterprise and a passion for teaching others about the benefits of natural fibers. Hansen is part of a growing collective of sheep farmers who are marketing their wool through the Three Rivers Fibershed.
Marketing her fiber and teaching others about slow fashion and local fibersheds is part of a larger vision for Hansen — one that combines her values of conservation and community.
The Lure of the Northwoods
Hansen was an architect living in Chicago when she became reacquainted with a former classmate — and her husband-to-be — Chris Wallner. He soon made the move to the Windy City, but the courtship was rooted in a compromise that in a few years they would find a rural place to put down roots.
Hansen hadn't intended to farm. The closest she'd gotten to farming as a kid were visits to an uncle's apple orchard for family holidays. But in 2000, Wallner and Hansen made the leap, finding a 40-acre plot of land tucked into the forests of Price County.
"The area appealed to us because it was relatively inexpensive," Hansen notes. "Now we understand why." They'd made the move to the Northwoods in a stretch of drought, and Hansen recalls that "when the spigots opened up, we realized the acreage is on mostly swamp land. I ended up having to develop gardening methods to be more climate resilient."
But she's carved a living off the land. The farming ventures started with a garden and selling produce at a local farmers market. Then it progressed to laying hens, meat chickens, and, eventually, sheep.
In 2012, after some time experimenting with feeder lambs, Hansen invested in dual-purpose Coopworth breeding stock. She received funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) cost-share for fencing and watering systems.
Hansen runs Autumn Larch Farm in an environmentally conscious way, limiting chemical use, conserving water and energy, and "generally treading softly upon the earth." She implements FAMACHA testing on the flock and drenches with garlic as a natural dewormer, when possible, to avoid parasite resistance.
She's soaked up knowledge along the way from other sheep farmers, Farmers Union members, local grazier networks and UW-Extension.
"I really started learning about pasture improvement and intensive rotational grazing, and it's been incredible to watch how the paddocks have changed over time with better management."
Hansen is an active member of the Taylor-Price Farmers Union and has also been a mover-and-shaker in Wisconsin's local food movement, organizing past Local Food Summits.
Finding her 'flock'
Over time, Hansen built up a solid support network of farmer friends, but it wasn't until a few
years ago that she found her true "flock" — the fiber community.
"I was talking with a friend who is a weaver and a dyer, and we knew we needed a fibershed and thought, 'Oh man, are we going to have to start one ourselves?' " she remembers. That set Hansen to searching online — and stumbling upon a wool marketing workshop being hosted by Three Rivers Fibershed. "When I went to the first meeting, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep that night," she recalls with a laugh. "I had been attending all these workshops about cattle grazing and meat marketing, and those were sometimes hard to translate into what I wanted to do. Here was this group of people doing exactly what I’m doing with their own breed and these little variables, but trying to sell high quality, locally produced wool to a local market. It was so perfect; I knew had to be a part of it."
Three Rivers Fibershed focuses on a bio-region covering a 175-mile radius around Minneapolis, including portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota. The membership currently includes five shepherds in Minnesota and seven in Wisconsin. It will eventually offer a community membership option for people who want to support the concept of local fiber.
"We have a couple of natural dyers and at least one weaver, and all of our farms are sheep except one cashmere goat farm," Hansen said. Thus far, the fibershed's focus has been on education and marketing.
"Instead of having to shoulder the entire load of teaching people why local fiber is beneficial, we work together," Hansen said. As capacity grows, the group hopes to set up mentorships with established and beginning farmers.
Soil to soil
In hindsight, Hansen's ventures into fiber had some stepping stones.
"In college I'd had a Norwegian roommate, and she's the one who taught me to be, well, a bit of a fiber snob," Hansen notes with a chuckle. "Norwegians are opposed to clothing that contains flame retardants. They are all about natural fibers, and knitting is something taught to them as boys and girls in school as a survival skill."
As she grew in her role of a shepherd, Hansen was learning more and more about fiber — and the impact of society's obsession with consumerism.
"Finding the fibershed really turned up the temperature a bit," she said. "I’m constantly learning about the impact of conventional clothing on the planet." She notes that wool is something Americans should look to as a lower impact option for clothing.
The Three Rivers Fibershed points out that the fashion industry creates more CO2 emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. The pace of clothing production and consumption, or fast fashion, has accelerated so quickly that one garbage truck of textiles goes to the landfill or incinerator every second.
With a rise of popularity in minimalism, Hansen hopes to see people thinking less about quantity and more about quality of clothes.
Wool falls into the category of being a Soil to Soil product, Hansen explains. "With wool, you buy a high-quality item that will last a long time, maybe you need to do a little bit of repair on it to keep it going. You’ve washed it minimally so you’re not over-washing or shrinking it from washing incorrectly. Then, when it has truly reached the end of its life for you, it can go back in the ground, into the soil, and become nutrients to feed the soil and grow more wool or whatever else."
In contrast, plastic is a nonrenewable resource with questionable health impacts. "Every time we wash those plastic-based fabrics, they are sloughing off microplastics into our environment."
A study by the University of Newcastle in Australia suggests that humans are eating, swallowing or breathing in about 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic each week, equal to the weight of one credit card. The plastic contamination comes from "microplastics" which are making their way into our food, drinking water and even the air.
As concern over microplastics in clothing rises, so, too, does interest in alternative fiber sources like wool, flax, and hemp.
"We've seen that rising interest reflected in the Farmers Union membership," Hansen said. Recent WFU policy, at left, supports local fiber.
Lagging rural infrastructure limits growth
A limiting factor, as with so many other issues in rural Wisconsin, is lack of infrastructure. Similar to the struggles beef farmers have had with accessing meat processing, sheep farmers have long been faced with a struggle to get wool processed in a timely manner.
"There used to be fiber mills in the same way that there used to be creameries everywhere, so the wool wouldn’t travel as far," Hansen said. "We’re quite fortunate in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest to have quite a few mills, but we need even more. They’re all at capacity."
Hansen waits anywhere from two to five months for her products to come back from most of the woolen mills. Upon their return, she faces her next rural infrastructure hurdle: rural broadband access.
"The pandemic really brought home just how critical rural broadband is," Hansen said. "I've had incredible opportunities over the past year to reach new customers — through workshops at the New York Sheep and Wool Festival and other events — and each time it’s been a struggle and huge amount of extra work trying to accomplish a simple virtual event."
Hansen tried test runs — even resorting to giving a presentation from a friend's house in town with a more stable connection — but kept hitting the wall of limited broadband speeds in an increasingly virtual world.
"This was an opportunity for me to make extra money on the farm by doing something there's a demand for, and I really can’t," Hansen said.
Still, she soldiered on, launching an online shop and devoting herself to the farm blog and social media, despite connectivity quirks.
"It was exhausting to be outside of my comfort zone promoting myself like that, and then having the stress of it not posting correctly or taking an inordinate amount of time to upload," she said.
She's a vocal advocate for rural broadband funding. In the meantime, she travels to fiber events and the Rusk County Farmers Market and continues to grow the farm's marketing and offerings. Last year she built a wool studio and classroom space on the farm, where she looks forward to teaching others fiber crafts. She offers open shop and crafting time from 3-7pm on the third Thursday of the month.
This past winter, Hansen became a director for the fibershed. "I've really been enjoying the journey. In fiber, there are so many things that used to be, that are just taken for granted, and also so much knowledge lost through the generations. It's been fun to be a part of bringing that all back around."
WFU's Stance on Local Fiber:
According to our 2021 policy, set by the grassroots membership at the State Convention in January, WFU supports developing regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers, by expanding opportunities to implement carbon farming, forming catalytic foundations to rebuild regional manufacturing infrastructure and expertise, and connecting end-users to farms and ranches through public education.
In order to create a robust network of local growers, dyers, mills, tanners, makers and retailers, WFU supports transparent supply chains that go all the way to the soil. Much like in “slow food,” fewer ingredients are better: an undyed wardrobe can embrace naturally-colored wool, flax or hemp, and can evolve over time with layers of natural dyes. WFU supports the work of the existing Fibershed affiliates in the region and the creation of additional affiliates to fully represent the spectrum of fiber and textile producers throughout all of Wisconsin.
WFU supports developing an economy that no longer depends upon synthetic compounds for textiles, requiring us to focus collectively on profitable and ecologically beneficial alternatives – Local Fiber, Local Labor, Local Dye.
Three Rivers Fibershed:
The 100-Day Wool Dress Challenge: