by Kevin Robinson-Avila
NMSU helps producers find alternative, high-paying markets
Abel H. Miller, 69, begins his days at dawn on the open range at Acoma Pueblo, where he’s been herding sheep since 1948.
Miller spends most nights in a broken down school bus parked near pens that house his 400 sheep. He makes coffee and stew on a small kerosene stove. He packs a .22 magnum revolver to protect the herd from coyotes and rattlesnakes.
“I’m out here every day, 365 days a year—no vacations, no holidays,” Miller said. “I’ve got to take care of the sheep, whether it’s winter or summer.”
Every June, Miller herds his sheep to the pueblo’s community shearing pen to cut and pack fleeces for sale. Despite his efforts, Miller generally makes little profit because he lacks resources to ship wool to highpaying, out-of-state warehouses. Instead, he sells wool at below-market rates to nearby trading posts and earns his living from sporadic lamb sales.
“It’s tough, but this is my life,” said Miller, who retired from Santa Fe Railway in 1991 after 33 years. “Between the sheep and my retirement, I get by.”
Like Miller, thousands of Native Americans depend on wool and sheep sales despite sharp declines in New Mexico herds since the 1990s. But with most tribes located far from markets, producers generally sell wool at rock-bottom prices and rely on lamb and mutton to feed families and supplement income.
To improve conditions, New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service has launched a new program to help tribal producers find alternative markets.
“People at Acoma and other pueblos rely on local trading posts, but they could significantly increase profits by marketing wool directly to warehouses,” said Pat Melendrez, an Extension natural resources specialist directing the program.
By improving their income, NMSU hopes to slow the decline in production, which plummeted after the federal government eliminated wool incentives in the 1990s.
Between 1997 and 2002, New Mexico herds fell from 297,000 head to 155,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wool production dropped from 2.3 million pounds to just 1.2 million.
Nevertheless, sheep still provide an economic boost to tribal producers, said Gerald Moore, Extension agricultural agent at the Navajo Nation.
“At least 25 percent of Navajo families still raise sheep, whether it’s five head or 200,” Moore said. “It’s a cultural and economic thing that people won’t give up.”
Under the new Extension program, Melendrez negotiated with Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative to send trucks directly to Acoma, the Ramah Navajo Chapter and other reservations to collect wool. Mid-States has warehouses in Kansas, Ohio and South Dakota. It pools wool from producers nationwide for bulk sales to wool mills, allowing herders to earn top market prices once sales are complete.
But to sell wool through Mid-States, tribal producers need to grade their fleeces to improve quality, Melendrez said.
“For generations, tribal producers have indiscriminately bundled up their wool in sacks for sale to trading posts,” Melendrez said. “By grading wool, they can sell uniform, quality fleece that is much more competitive”
To teach shearing and grading, Melendrez holds workshops at pueblos. He demonstrates how to cut away or “skirt” lower-quality wool and then shear and bag higher-grade fleece.
Tribal growers say the program has brought huge dividends. Acoma and Ramah producers have sold about 33,000 pounds to Mid-States since 2004, and they now earn six or seven times more for their fleeces.
“We used to get only about 10 cents a pound for our wool,” said Acoma producer Rex Salvador. “Now we’re getting 75 cents a pound from Mid-States.”
NMSU also is working to revive wool production in traditional Hispanic communities where, until recently, local families herded sheep for generations.
In San Miguel and Mora counties, where about 80 percent of the population is Hispanic, NMSU has partnered with Heifer International and the Mora-based Tapetes de Lana wool-weaving factory to help prospective producers rebuild herds.
Heifer approved a $125,000 grant for start-up loans for local families to buy livestock, while Tapetes de Lana promised to buy up to 100,000 pounds of wool annually from local producers. Tapetes will process the wool at a new, 11,000-square-foot mill it opened in Mora last August.
For its part, NMSU will help prospective producers manage the production cycle, from selecting animals to selling meat and wool, said Skip Finley, Extension agricultural agent in Mora. Extension will teach growers to feed, care for, breed and shear animals.
“Under the Heifer project, we’ll triple the number of local herds in a very short time and get wool production going again. In the long term, we’re talking thousands of new head of sheep, goats and other livestock. It will significantly improve income for many families here,” Finley said.