Juliet Morris on working with Organic Wool
Good evening WOVEMBERITES! This evening we continue to build on yesterday’s Organic Wool theme, presenting a Q&A between WOVEMBER and Juliet Morris, the Shepherd behind Ystrad Organics. Tomorrow, we shall continue ‘Working with Wool’ in a related Q&A with Sue James, who is the Knitwear Designer at Llynfi, and who is working with Juliet on the Organic Wool Wales project. Juliet and Sue are working together from different ends of the Wool Industry to make the very best of their amazing local product: Organic Welsh Wool. All content © Juliet Morris and used with kind permission.
WOVEMBER: I wondered if you could tell WOVEMBER readers a little bit about your organic farm in Carmarthenshire, the type of sheep you have, and their relationship to the specific environment there?
Juliet: The farm’s Welsh name, Ystrad, describe its setting perfectly: a bowl shaped valley that runs east to west, on the north side, it’s ancient woodland and coniferous forests, on the south, it’s classic Welsh uplands and panoramic views. Poor farm land by modern agricultural standards, its real wealth lies in its natural habitats. For me, this relationship between production and nature is fundamental.
The animals that do best on the old traditional pastures at Ystrad are the old traditional, now rare, breeds. And, because you really need more than one species to manage healthy organic grassland, I farm Irish Moiled cattle along with my sheep – pedigree Hill Radnors, black and white Wensleydale sheep, and their exceptionally fleecy cross-bred lambs.
WOVEMBER: I love the title “Shear Waste” of your amazing report; it suggests that at the moment the full potential of organic fleece is not being maximised. Could you say a few words about how your fleeces have historically been used and how you feel they could be better used in the future?
Juliet: By law and apart from a few exceptions, anyone with more than 4 sheep has to sell their wool to the Wool Marketing Board and, until a few years ago, it had no means of keeping organically farmed fleece separate from conventional. That meant that there was no such thing as certified organic wool from the UK.
The Board has now developed clear processes for keeping organic wool separate but only a fraction of organic farmers use the system. The Board is still not getting organic fleece through in sufficient volume to value it as anything different from conventionally farmed fleece or to attract the attention of the big wool buyers. Of the organic wool that is sold onto the world market, the price is no different from conventional and there are no systems in place to allow us to see where it goes or what becomes of it. Whilst certified organic wool from the UK now exists, it remains largely invisible.
The lack of traceability, combined with the lack of financial return in the British Wool system, make it nigh on impossible for farmers to maintain any sense of pride or purpose in what happens to their hard work. It’s heart breaking that such a precious, natural, home grown, organic resource is ‘lost’. It is why I secured permission from the Board, a number of years ago, to retain the 500kg or so fleece that I produce every year in order to process and sell it direct.
WOVEMBER: Obviously your farm is an organic farm and you are looking towards developing an organic certified sheep to shoulder production chain. In the world of organic food production, one of the things that seems to have really taken off is product differentiation, and also increased consumer awareness regarding different types of breeds, provenance, etc. I wondered if you feel this model is applicable to wool growers and indeed whether looking at the organic food market has played a role in your decision to move towards organic wool production?
Juliet: Organic production is a whole system thing. The values and principles define the way in which we do everything – from the soil up, literally. They’re about the inter-connectedness of everything we do and our impact on the planet. I would farm organically, whatever I was growing.
Your observation about the food market is a good one. The last decade has seen the rise and rise of consumer choice and a whole wave of ‘differentiation techniques’ in food, many of which are based on values and ethics – traceability, locality, provenance, tradition, heritage, animal welfare, the environment, fair trade, food miles. And the best of these are about breaking down the barriers between producer and consumer, allowing and encouraging us to start thinking a little more deeply about where things come from, how they are produced and processed, and whether the journey from farm to fork, or sheep to shoulder, is marked by a simple vapour trail across the sky – or a whole tonnage of newly released carbon into the atmosphere.
The textiles sector is still somewhere off shore, so vast and so intrinsically global that it is proving an incredibly slow tanker to turn. But there are some strong tidal forces – organic, fair trade cotton has gone mainstream, wool is resuming its platform as a fibre of choice and ‘made in Britain’ has real brand value. They combine to suggest that the best of what has happened in food is becoming increasingly evident in textiles and fashion.
WOVEMBER: What are the positive benefits involved in switching to organic production for the wool-grower?
Juliet: Just as farmers seeking financial return from organic farming over conventional and consumers applying a ‘better taste test’ to organic food are likely to be disappointing, organic wool is unlikely to look or feel any different from conventional. Given the strict chemical prohibitions in the organic textiles processing standards, a residue test might discover an awful lot more in your conventionally produced woollen goods than you’d bargained for!
‘Isn’t all wool organic?’ is my most often asked question. For clarity, I’m talking ‘certified organic’ – a set of standards that define, not so much the thing itself, but the way in which it has been produced, and processed. They specify cost-neutral demands on the plant with optimal health and welfare of the people and animals involved.
For everyone involved in the organic chain – from producer to processor to consumer – commitment is everything. It’s hard! But the organic standards give me a tried and tested framework of methods and knowledge that set out everything I do and should be doing – from building fertility in the soil to managing clean, productive pasture to ensuring the health and wellbeing of my animals and the wildlife around us.
The organic standards are like a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ and ‘can use and can’t’. Occasionally they restrict you to the point of fury. More usually, they offer solutions to problems that you might not have considered. They always challenge you to keep thinking about underlying whys and wherefores, and sustainable, long term practice and implications, rather than short-term, quick-win measures. You can see where the tensions lie!
Ultimately, the (nightmarish, I have to say) inspection process and paper-based bureaucracy that you are tasked with providing, gives me absolute confidence that I am farming using as sustainable, environmentally sensitive and welfare-friendly a system as possible. And, when you’re farming, a reason to hold your head high, and a slight sense of smugness, go a very long way.
WOVEMBER: Beyond the administration-heavy side of things on the farm, what are some of the key challenges involved in establishing a sheep to shoulders process that is certified organic?
Juliet: The wool textiles journey from ‘sheep to shoulder’ has a lot of very different steps along the way and organic certification covers every one – from the muck that’s used on the grass that feeds the pregnant organic ewe to the approved detergents and machine oils that are used in the organic fabric finishing process. Accessing the certified processing chain is a challenge in itself – although I hope ‘Shear Waste’ has helped – and being confident that everyone who says they are ‘organic’ has a certificate to prove it.
For me, as a practical person, the hardest thing is the ‘audit trail’. Not only does everything have to be done to organic standards, you must be capable of proving it has been done to organic standards. The entire production and processing journey must be fully traceable with a clear record of every input – from muck spread on fields to hay fed to ewes to detergents used in fabric finishing – and every movement – from the birth of the lamb to the date of shearing to the journey from spinner to weaver. The certification process anchors the integrity of organic wool and textiles. For me personally, it very often feels like a triumph of bureaucracy over getting a life!
WOVEMBER: As a wool grower you have become very engaged with what happens to your wool once it leaves your farm; what are the advantages in getting more involved in what happens to wool once it leaves your farm?
Juliet: There is little romance about shepherding. It’s a business that is entirely reliant on natural and market forces totally outside your control. Sheep farming is hard. The weather, the environment and the sheep determine the health and productivity of a farm, and can never be relied upon. The value of breeding stock, meat animals and wool rise and regularly fall, whilst feed, medication, machinery and contractor costs only ever go up. The connection between what my sheep produce, the creativity it inspires in makers and enjoyment or users and wearers gives me and my flock a profound sense of purpose – it’s why we do what we do.
But my involvement ‘beyond the fleece’ also gives me intelligence that I can use to change and improve what I do. As farmers, we have significant control over the quality of the fleece we produce – from our choice of breed stock to the standards of health and welfare we achieve to the way in which we manage wool ‘on the hoof’ and off. The way in which it is processed can be its making, or its ruination. My relationship with spinners, weavers and makers is as critical as my relationship with my sheep and their wool – though not as daily an obsession!
The farm is the start of a continuum of woolly activity. Tweak anywhere along the line and you influence the end results – and the ultimate arbiters are my end users. A direct connection to them, and an engagement in the entire process, from farm to yarn to fabric, allows me to learn from their feedback, to adjust they way it’s produced or processed, and evolve what is done in response.
Thank you so much, Juliet, for telling us a bit more about Organic Wool production in Wales, and for your insights into working through the whole sheep-to-shoulders process organically! Join us tomorrow to hear what Sue has to say about working directly with Organic Wool as knitwear designer for Llynfi, and to hear about the joint venture Organic Wool Wales which Juliet and Sue are working on together.