During World War II, Kansas sheep growers were producing more than 3 million pounds of wool - which helped supply uniforms and socks for soldiers.
Now the fiber has lost many of its markets to synthetic products, causing the end of an era in South Hutchinson.
Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association closed its warehouse and retail store here Monday after a board vote.
All wool in the region’s marketing pool will now go the cooperative’s lone warehouse in Ohio, said Mid-States treasurer, Lori Tope.
Three full-time and two part-time employees are affected, she said. Customers were expected to receive postcards about the location’s closure later this week.
“With the sheep numbers shrinking year after year after year, there are just fewer customers,” she said. “It became too inefficient to keep two properties going.”
The closure is part of a trend across the nation. The U.S. sheep industry has been declining since the end of World War II, according to the National Academies of Science. It’s half of what it was even 20 years ago.
“It’s synthetics,” said David Rowe, general manager of Mid-States who was in South Hutchinson this week closing up the facility. “Synethics has put pressure on the industry. The quality isn’t as good as most people know, but it becomes a price function.”
Thus, he said, Mid-States, which will have a century under its belt next year, is adjusting to the industry’s contraction.
South Hutchinson once served all the cooperative’s producers west of the Mississippi, processing wool that would eventually be turned into socks and sweaters and fine suits and dresses.
However, as the industry continued to wane, Mid-States officials didn’t replace longtime wool grader Alex McClure when he retired in 2012 because “they weren’t handling enough wool,” Rowe said.
“It made more sense at that time to collect wool at this warehouse and send it back to Ohio to be graded,” Rowe said, adding that a majority of western route trucks were heading straight to the Ohio warehouse by this time anyway.
A long history
Mid-States formed in 1918 when a number of wool producers in Ohio banded together to market their wool during World War II, according to K-State’s Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development.
In 1931, a similar group of producers organized in Kansas City - calling themselves Midwest Wool Marketing Cooperative. Both cooperatives grew and eventually added a livestock supply business to their operations.
The location was part of Midwest Wool Marketing Cooperative until it merged with the Ohio cooperative in 1974, becoming Mid-States.
It’s not clear if the Reno County market developed when Midwest organized or later.
A story in The News in 1943 indicated that the market had a good previous year, reporting wool dealers alone had delivered more than 3 million tons of wool to the warehouse - including about 650,000 pounds from Kansas.
Much more could have come in directly from farmers. In 1945, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, wool production in Kansas totaled 3.7 million pounds.
The latest census in 2012 showed Kansas had 545 farms with wool-producing sheep. Wool production totaled only about 254,000 pounds.
With the decline in sheep producers, Rowe said, the people walking into the local retail store also dwindled.
“The sales volume wasn’t feasible to keep the facility open,” he said.
Inconvenience for local producers
Janelle Bennett, who raises 100 sheep in Reno County, said she understands why they closed. But, she wished the Mid-States board would have given producers more notice.
“If I had known when I was there last week, I would have picked more stuff up then,” she said, adding, “It really puts people in a bind when there is no warning.”
She’ll have to plan ahead better and order supplies like milk replacer and colostrum, Bennett said, adding there are few, if any, walk-in retail outlets to buy supplies. She’ll have to order online.
Bennett said she took her wool to Mid-States.
“My dad went there,” she said of using the warehouse. “That is what is really sad.”
Cheryl and Lee Carey have 160 head in northern Reno County. They take their wool to a handler but used the retail store often. Now they will be flipping through supply catalogs.
They’ve been shopping at Mid-State’s for sheep and goat supplies since they started their herds in 1982.
“It’s just inconvenient,” she said, noting it is the little things - like buying halters for 4-H or getting blades sharpened. “It will change our way of thinking. We’ll have to do it a week or two in advance.”
But she’s seen the changes in the industry - including in Reno County, which ranks third in the state for goat and sheep production, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. And some producers are raising hair breeds of sheep so they don’t have to worry about shearing them.
“We know of several farmers who got up there in age and retired from it and their children weren’t interested in taking it on,” she said. “We have lost a lot of producers in Reno County, that is for sure.”
Rowe said those with questions, or if a producer is looking for a wool handler, they can call the main office. The retail store already had a large internet base and producers can order online.
“We have semis running from all over the country picking up wool now - it won’t be much of a change for them,” he said.