Illinois Green Pastures Fiber Cooperative

Co-op connects craft makers with locally produced fiber

By Anne Todd, Contributing Editor

atasha Lehrer and her mother, Donna, of Big Rock, Ill., are sheep producers who are deeply passionate about shepherding and fiber arts, including spinning and knitting. Both daughter and mother had a desire to raise the visibility of, and expand opportunities for, their fellow fiber producers in Illinois. So, in July 2006, Natasha, then only 19 years old, wrote and submitted a grant application to USDA Rural Development in hopes of obtaining funds to help start the Illinois Green Pastures Fiber Cooperative to market and promote Illinois animal-fiber products.

The following September, the co-op was awarded a $180,000 Small Minority Producer Grant (now known as the Small, Socially Disadvantaged Producer Grant Program) – the first such grant ever made by USDA Rural Development in Illinois. The grant helped launch the co-op, funding its advertising, educational programs and development of its website:

Donna served as the president of the Green Pastures board of directors during the inaugural year of the co-op, and Natasha was on the board in the early years. More recently, they have chosen to step back and let others take the lead in managing the co-op. However, they continue to serve as consultants to the members, both on the best uses and characteristics of the various fibers and on ways to market that fiber.

Marketing events: from 30 to 30,000
The fiber shows that the Lehrers and other co-op members take part in can range from small events, where only about 30 people attend, to huge shows that attract crowds of 30,000. The Lehrers advise members on pricing and other ways to showcase their wares, depending on the type of event.

Of the co-op, Donna Lehrer says: “I did not want to be a middleman. We wanted to offer a place where co-op members could sell and we could educate people on the wonderful Illinois fiber available.”

In addition to being founding members of the Green Pastures Co-op, Natasha and Donna own and operate Esther’s Place,, a community-oriented fibers arts studio in Big Rock. Esther’s Place offers classes in knitting, spinning, weaving, dyeing, felting and other fiber-related arts. It also boasts a large selection of fibers and yarns for sale, all of which are locally grown, and offers a selection of craft-making supplies and notions. Natasha also applied for grant assistance through USDA Rural Development in 2005 on behalf of Esther’s Place, and was awarded a Value-Added Producer Grant of $24,125, which helped launch the business.

The Lehrer family has a flock of Cheviot sheep, a longwool breed that produces dense fleece that is ideal for felting. Like the Lehrers, most members of the Green Pastures co-op harvest fiber primarily from various breeds of sheep, but there are also Illinois fiber producers that raise angora rabbits, llamas and alpacas.

The raw wool sells for as low as 16 cents per pound, with white merino wool earning about 65 cents per pound. However, finished clothing, accessories or artwork created from the raw product can sell for up to $30 per pound, and spinning the softest fleece into yarn can yield up to $60 to $65 per pound (minus the cost of shearing and processing).

Unaware of value-added potential
Prior to the launch of the co-op, most Illinois sheep producers were not aware of the value-added potential of their raw wool that could be achieved just by spinning it into yarn. Because raw, sheared wool nets only $1.20 per pound, very few Illinois shepherds attached any particular value to it, especially considering the cost of shearing and processing. In fact, about a third of the shepherds in the state would just shear the wool and burn it.

But the Lehrers and other members of the Green Pastures co-op are working slowly and steadily to educate producers about the value of spinning the raw fiber into yarn, and also about the benefits of tapping into the fibers arts business, which is growing.

“Shepherding is hard work, but it’s rewarding, says Natasha Lehrer. “I’m proud that the Green Pastures co-op is helping Illinois wool producers, more and more, to connect to the broader world of the fiber arts.”

Co-op Q&A

Editor’s note: Contributing Editor Anne Todd recently
interviewed Jane Zeien, president of the board of the
Illinois Green Pastures Fiber Cooperative, and Judy
Maierhofer, board member, to learn more about the coop’s

operations and mission.

Question: Green Pastures just had its fourth anniversary this past July. How has the co-op grown and changed since the group first had the idea of developing the fiber marketing co-op?
Jane Zeien: “The co-op started with a few members within a close geographical area. It has grown to include members across the state, more than doubling the number of members, to 30.”

Question: What steps has Green Pastures taken to increase marketing of members’ products?
Jane Zeien: “Many new marketing avenues have been started. More fiber shows have been added to the schedule, increasing the direct contact with fiber artists who are looking for quality products. An additional retail outlet has been added to increase exposure in a different region of the state.”

Question: What has been the biggest challenge facing the co-op? And the biggest obstacle overcome?
Jane Zeien: “The biggest challenge for Green Pastures continues to be marketing. Increasing awareness of the wonderful fiber products the co-op members produce is a major goal of the co-op. Another challenge is to attract more members to join the co-op, increasing the variety of fiber that can be offered.”

Question: Any new marketing efforts planned?
Jane Zeien: “The co-op was represented at the Bishop Hill Fiber Guild’s 30th annual Spin-In on Oct. 16 in Kewannee, Ill. The Spin-In is for spinners and knitters. It was a day filled with fiber workshops, and there were also opportunities for us to showcase the co-op, our products and to network with artisans and other fiber producers.”

Question:Where do you see Green Pastures going in the future? What do you hope to achieve with the co-op in the future?
Jane Zeien: “Members of the co-op are passionate about their animals and the fiber they produce. We will continue to provide top-quality fiber to the fiber industry. The co-op provides members with a way to preserve the lifestyle they love and help preserve rural America. As the demand for fiber increases, there will be more of a demand for the animals, thus increasing American agriculture.”

Question: How far back with Green Pastures do you go, and what do you like best about belonging to the co-op?
Judy Maierhofer: “I’ve been with the co-op for about four years. I joined right after the first 12 founding members joined. I’ve worked with fiber arts my whole life. My grandmother taught me how to spin as a child. And I’ve been shepherding for almost 30 years now. What I like best about the co-op is that it gets us all talking about outlets for our products and connects us to shop owners and artists so that we can sell our product.”

Question: Being a shepherd is demanding, but it seems to be a passion for you and other shepherds. What makes you stick with it?
Judy Maierhofer: “It is a lot of work, but if you love doing it, it’s not really work. And I love the sheep. Plus, sheep are lower maintenance than other livestock, like horses or cattle. They can handle it if I get home late.”

Question: Tell us about how you got started and the breed of sheep you work with.
Judy Maierhofer: “I’ve been a shepherd for almost 30 years. I got started with Navajo Churros in 1989, when I agreed to help foster a few Churros that were originally part of a flock in New Mexico. There was a terrible drought at the time, and shepherds there were looking for farmers who could rescue the sheep, which were dying. A rescue program was set up between New Mexico, Arizona and Illinois. I have about 25 Navajo Churros now.
“Navajo Churros are known for having coarse fiber that is used for rugs. But this isn’t really accurate. The boys have a type of mane that is coarse, but the body hair is fine. Also, there is a lot of color variation in their wool. All the colors you see in human hair, you will also see in Navajo Churros.”

Question: In what ways do you participate with the co-op?
Judy Maierhofer: “In addition to being on the board, I help keep everyone aware of all the fiber festivals and shows that run from April through October.”

Question: How does the co-op communicate with members?
Judy Maierhofer: “The co-op sends out its newsletter over the Internet, and we are also working on a monthly “FYI” to alert members about upcoming shows and sales. The co-op also sends out monthly checks to members from the proceeds of product sales at the events. For our cooperative, the communications committee is even more important than a membership committee.”

Question: What would you like to see the Green Pastures co-op take on in the future?
Judy Maierhofer: “I’d like to see us get our products into more shops and give members more outlets for their products and sales. I’d also like us to get more into the Chicago art market, because fiber arts are hot in the fine arts right now.”

November/December Table of Contents