February 2005 -- In the business world, the pendulum is always moving, and as Don Van Nostran, general manager of Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association can attest, the wool business is no exception.
Although wool prices are stable today, it was a different story in the late 1990s when Van Nostran was building a new warehouse that would host a one-of-a-kind electronic wool grading system in Canal Winchester, Ohio.
This system was developed to increase the marketability of wool from the farms of small-scale producers who belong to the Mid-States Cooperative.
?The average wool clip from our producers is around 400 pounds, which means the average flock size is 40 to 60 ewes,? says Van Nostran.
Small-sized flocks are not the only challenge presented to Mid-States; many flocks are made up of various breeds of sheep. However, Van Nostran has been able to overcome those challenges because of the electronic grading system.
Currently, Mid-States efficiently grades 2.5 million lbs. of wool per year from more than 4,500 producers from 22 different states.
?The wool packaged and shipped from this warehouse looks much like that of other warehouses around the country. However it may take hundreds of producers delivering their wool to us in the back of their pick-ups to develop a 45,000-pound container load,? says Van Nostran.
A concept based on the car industry, the grading system operates with only one motor, one belt and several baskets that carry the wool to the desired lot.
Each individual fleece is placed on a belt that carries it the grader. The grader then determines the most appropriate grade, programs the computer for the desired location and rolls it onto a scale. The computer records the information and moves the fleece into a bucket. The bucket travels around the top of the warehouse and drops it in the appropriate lot. At that point, the wool is blended together creating a uniform group. Once each wool lot is large enough, the warehouseman will then bale it and prepare it for shipping.
This system allows for maximum profitability from each individual fleece.
Van Nostran says that most of the wool sold at Mid-States is on a forward-contract basis due to the fact it receives wool throughout the year.
?We sell wool on future projections of what we will have,? he says. ?This protects the integrity of our company and maximizes the return to the grower.?
Mid-States has the ability to put together a variety of specialty wool blends to meet its customers? needs due in part to the electronic grading system.
?I like to think we provide a service to the industry,? says Van Nostran, when speaking about the wool blends.
Mid-States? customers are made up of both domestic and international buyers.
Van Nostran gives credit to the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) for opening the doors to the international wool market.
?That was probably a lifesaver for the industry,? he says. ?I find it to be a highly successful program of ASI.?
Not only does Mid-States market wool for its producers with locations in Ohio and Kansas, it also operates a livestock supply division and a wool retail division. In addition, Van Nostran continues to rent out the old warehouse to a steel manufacturing company.
The rent collected from the steel manufacturer along with assistance from the Sheep Center helped fund the development of the electronic grading system.
These days Van Nostran says that he considers Mid-States and the sheep industry as a whole to be on the positive side of the pendulum. He says that Mid-States has now seen a number of years of profitability and has worked down the debt of the grading system.
?I?m more optimistic about the sheep industry today than I have been the past 25 years,? he says. ?There are some very good things going on in our industry right now.?