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Thorne Selected for Sheep Heritage Foundation Scholarship

July 17, 2020

A California native living in Texas plans to put the 2020 Sheep Heritage Foundation Scholarship to use in Idaho. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Associate Jake Thorne was selected for the $3,000 scholarship, and will spend the money working toward a Ph.D. remotely through the University of Idaho.

“I’m just incredibly thankful for this scholarship,” Thorne said. “Cost is always a big concern when continuing your education, so this scholarship is much appreciated.”

Raised on a sheep operation in California, Thorne relocated to Texas to compete with Texas A&M’s livestock judging team in 2008. He earned a bachelors degree two years later and went right to work on his masters degree, which he finished in 2013.

“When I finished my masters, I thought I was done with school at that point,” said Thorne, who got married in 2015 and welcomed a daughter to the family in 2018. “I was definitely kind of tired of school and needed a break. But then I got involved here at San Angelo, and that sparked my interest. We have both research and extension here, and I was working on both sides. There are definitely some challenges and benefits of going to school while working and having a family. But my family is a source of motivation for me to work hard.”

Even before his masters degree was finished, Thorne accepted a position as a research associate and farm manager for Texas A&M AgriLife in San Angelo, Texas. He served in that role for six years before moving to the extension side of the operation in January 2019. He continues to serve in that role while pursuing his doctorate.

As for working with the University of Idaho, Thorne said he was excited about the university’s Flock54 Program and contacted Dr. Brenda Murdoch at Idaho about joining her team.

“I believe that investing in Jake’s education would be a great benefit to the American sheep industry as he has a unique understanding of both commercial production and scientific research,” Dr. Murdoch wrote in Thorne’s recommendation letter. “His training in molecular genetics throughout his Ph.D. program has provided him with the ability to offer perspective as both a producer and an academic, and I believe Jake will be able to use these tools to be a leader amongst his industry peers into the future.

“Jake joined my program in the spring of 2019 and has been involved in a number of our research projects. He has been active in trialing the Flock54 genomic marker panel, which I coordinated the development of, as it has become available to the sheep industry. Through grant-funded projects he has coordinated in Texas, Jake led the efforts to genotype over 2,000 sheep with Flock54 and produce parentage reports for the producers from these datasets.”

Working remotely hasn’t been a problem so far. And this year has certainly proven to the masses that video conferencing can go a long way to bring people together in a work environment.

“There are some issues that can come up when you’re 1,500 miles away from your fellow lab mates, but it hasn’t been a problem,” Jake said. “I also try to get to the campus at least once a semester.”

Thorne was one of several scholarship candidates in 2020 who has life-long ties to the American sheep industry.

“I’m a sheep guy and I’m passionate about this industry,” he said. “I think there are some industry problems that we can continue working on. There are so many production issues that I know we can solve with a little time and hard work. Parasites and reproduction are huge issues in the sheep industry here in Texas. I want to be a part of the leadership, a part of that core group in the industry that is working to solve these problems.”

Reverence for the Past, Innovation for the Future Permeates ASI Convention

January 30, 2020

Reverence for the Past, Innovation for the Future was more than just a theme for the 2020 American Sheep Industry Association Annual Convention. Sheep industry leaders from across the United States came together Jan. 22-25 at the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Plaza Resort to put those words into action.

Front and center was the ASI Board of Directors’ financial support of a commercial wool testing lab at Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas. The American wool industry has been researching the need to continue wool testing in a facility in the United States for the last couple of years. In 2019, wool industry leaders met first in San Angelo to discuss options, and later traveled to New Zealand to tour that country’s testing facility.

While the New Zealand facility will be open to American wool producers in 2020, the goal is to have the lab in San Angelo test the 2021 wool clip. Texas A&M leadership supports the idea and provided a six-figure financial support package, as well as existing building and some personnel related to the research that is conducted there today. Organizers worked with the Angelo State University Small Business Center to develop a plan for opening and operating the lab. Projections show the lab breaking even after three years in operation.

The National Sheep Industry Improvement Center and ASI’s for-profit Sheep Venture Company are partnering on a commitment of $150,000 in grant money toward equipment and training costs, while ASI will contribute $50,000 of wool funds.

“I think it’s amazing that such a small industry was able to come together and commit $200,000 to ensure we have access to wool testing in the United States.” said ASI Executive Director Peter Orwick. “Most of the American wool clip could not compete in the domestic or international markets without objective measurement, and the ASI leadership is pleased to support the wool experts at Texas A&M to provide this service.”

While details of the new lab put a nice bow on the final day of the convention, attendees were indoctrinated with the week’s theme from the outset. Thursday’s opening session provided a panel discussion with four industry innovators who built on the foundations established by their parents and grandparents and have worked to expand and grow those operations in ways their predecessors might never have imagined.

Producers Reed Anderson of Oregon, David Fisher of Texas, John Helle of Montana and Ryan Mahoney of California formed the panel. Each gave a presentation on where their operations began and worked from there to show how they’ve innovated from what were most often humble beginnings. Helle and his family earned the 2019 ASI Industry Innovation Award for developing the Duckworth clothing line that promotes a “sheep to shelf” dynamic that has proven popular with consumers. Anderson won the innovation award this year for building his own lamb processing facility to eliminate a bottleneck in his supply chain.

“I’m a fifth-generation sheep guy, but the first four generations took up all the ranch and all the money,” he said. “So, when I came along, I got the opportunity to work my ass off.”

Which is exactly what he did. Anderson got his start in the industry as a shearer and eventually started running his own flock on the grass seed fields of Oregon’s Willamette Valley – where moving sheep is as inevitable as death and taxes. But it never failed that when it came time to get the lambs out of the fields, Anderson had a hard time getting them processed. So, he cut out the middleman and built Kalapooia Processing.  With his wife, Robyn, and sons, Jake and Travis, the family-run operation now provides lamb to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Along the way, Anderson built his own distribution system, learned to compost everything that he couldn’t sell and established an operation will stand the test of time.

“I really love the sheep business. I really love the people in the sheep business, and I love people that like to eat lamb, especially when they pay me for it.”

Helle took on a similar challenge on the wool side of the industry. His parents, Joe and Aggie, had devoted their lives to building a fine-wool operation in Montana. But to see the true value of the wool, they developed the Duckworth clothing line and started processing their own American wool.

The idea was hatched on an area ski lift with branding expert Bernie Bernthal. He and Helle would talk business on the way up, ski their way down and start all over again – which lends a certain Montana-style credibility to the entire operation.

“We’re selling more than just wool,” Helle said during his presentation. “We’re selling Montana. We’re selling a way of life. Marketers love to sell products with a story, and millennials in particular, want to know where their wool comes from.”

While Anderson and Helle looked to create new businesses to sustain their sheep industry involvement, Fisher and Mahoney are developing new programs and implementing new technology within their flocks to increase productivity and secure the bottom line.

Running fine-wool Rambouillet sheep, Fisher looked at two solutions: increase his flock’s lamb crop and improve their wool quality. Technology played a role in both. He learned how to ultrasound his own pregnant ewes, got involved with the National Sheep Improvement Program and signed up for Superior Farms’ Flock 54 program. While using technology comes with a cost, he believes its use has already paid dividends in his operation.

Without knowing it at the time, Mahoney saved his family’s historic operation. He was offered a job in the family’s feedlot by his grandfather. Years after accepting – and eventually working his way up to running the entire operation – he learned that his grandfather would have left the sheep business completely if Mahoney hadn’t taken the job.

Since then, he’s had plenty of crazy ideas – and some not so crazy. “Nothing replaces good animal husbandry,” he told the crowd.

Mahoney started collecting data from his flock. But the only way for him to monetize the investment in data collection was to also use that data to make smart decisions about his operation. While he’s embraced technology, Mahoney offers one key piece of advice.

“Get what works for you,” he said.

ASI is following that advice, as well, in two key areas with the development of the American Wool Assurance Program and the Secure Sheep and Wool Supply Plan. Wool standard programs have been popping up across the globe in recent years – mostly at the request of manufacturers and retailers – to show that wool is harvested in a responsible manner. Before long, sheep producers who aren’t involved in one of the many standards might find it difficult to sell their wool.

With that in mind, ASI is working with Colorado State University to develop a wool standard that works for both producers and the companies who purchase, manufacture and sell wool. While the program is still in the developmental stage, Dr. Jason Ahola from CSU was on hand to discuss preliminary findings with wool producers in several meetings during the week.

The Secure Sheep and Wool Supply Plan being developed by ASI in conjunction with Iowa State University is aimed at planning for a possible disease outbreak within the sheep industry. Dr. Danelle Bickett-Weddle – who was on hand for the Production, Education and Research Council meeting last week – is working on disaster plans, as well as educational handouts, a website and more that will allow the sheep industry to come together to stop the spread of an infectious disease.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Mindy Brashears made her first speech of 2020 at the convention when she spoke to the ASI Board of Directors Informational Session on Friday afternoon and addressed two issues important to the sheep industry: fake protein and spring lamb.

“The good news for 2020 is that we are moving forward with labeling requirements for cell-based foods,” she said. “A labeling requirement describes the process, so there will be a requirement for it to be cell-cultured or cell-derived foods. Whatever the label is, that will go out for public comment and we expect to have that wrapped up by the end of the year.

“We are working very closed with FDA on the labeling of plant-based proteins. There is a standard of identity for the term lamb or beef or chicken or bacon that we have, and those products are not meeting that before sticking that on the label. FDA is aware of that. As an industry you need to continue to let FDA know that this is not acceptable and that you want them to take action. We’re doing that on our end and will continue to do that.”

As for a petition to change the definition of spring lamb, Brashears said USDA has taken and compiled public comments – including those from ASI against the change – and is working on a response. She said a decision is expected to be announced within a month or two.

Additionally, the Resource Management Council gathered to discuss key priorities for the industry. Aurelia Skipwith, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, received a standing ovation in speaking about her and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s commitment to partnership with sheep producers and ASI to keep working lands working. With sheep producers in nearly every region facing issues from wolves and bears protected by the Endangered Species Act – despite having met or exceeded recovery goals – common-sense regulatory changes to the act were welcome news.

Across all agencies represented in Scottsdale, comments mirrored a spirit of cooperation. Jacque Buchanan from the U.S. Forest Service discussed USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s commitment to “shared stewardship” of our nation’s forests to implement measures to reduce wildfire, enhance the range and mitigate conflicts.

In other association business, each of ASI’s eight regions met for individual caucuses, and three of those regions were tasked with electing new representatives to the ASI Executive Board. Region I elected Laurie Hubbard of Pennsylvania, Region III elected Anne Crider of Illinois and Region V elected Tammy Fisher of Texas. They were each elected to serve two-year terms on the board, and will be eligible for reelection to a second, two-year term.

Retiring Executive Board members Don Kniffen of New Jersey, John Dvorak of Minnesota and Bob Buchholz of Texas were all honored for their years of service to the industry during the Saturday board of directors meeting.

The 2021 ASI Annual Convention will be Jan. 27-30 in Denver.


Awards Handed Out at ASI Annual Convention

January 30, 2020

North Carolina sheep producer Bill Sparrow Jr. attended what was billed as the “First American Sheep Industry Convention” in San Antonio, Texas, in 1988. It was nearly his last sheep convention.

“I got home on Jan. 24 and on the 25th our middle child was born. Had the timing of that been a little different, you might have never seen me again,” he joked in accepting the American Sheep Industry Association’s Distinguished Producer Award last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., during the ASI Annual Convention.

While the National Wool Growers Association – the predecessor to ASI – has held conventions dating back to 1865, the 1988 convention marked the first that brought together NWGA and its auxiliary along with the American Sheep Producers Council and the National Lamb Feeders Association. NWGA and ASPC would later merge to form ASI.

“When Benny (Cox, ASI President) called a couple of days before Christmas to tell us about the award, we were truly shocked,” Sparrow said. “Over the years of my association with this organization, I have met people from nearly every state in the nation. It’s been a pleasure to be involved with the sheep industry, and I look forward to being a part of this organization for many years to come.”

Sparrow was joined on the winner’s stage by: Frank Moore of Wyoming, McClure Silver Ram Award winner; Reed Anderson of Oregon, Industry Innovation Award winner; Mike Caskey of Minnesota, Camptender Award winner; Lane Nordlund of Montana, Shepherd’s Voice Broadcasting Award winner; and Susan Crowell of Ohio, Shepherd’s Voice Print Award winner.

ASI Secretary/Treasurer Brad Boner introduced Moore, as the two Wyoming producers have worked together extensively with the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative.

“He’s been a beacon on dark days,” Boner said. “When we were reeling from the loss of the Wool Act incentive, he was an important voice in helping us rise from the ashes.”

Moore was one of several winners who mentioned the awards should be presented to husband-and-wife teams, since the wives are the ones left to deal with the farm or ranch when their husbands are away attending sheep conventions.

“It’s been an honor. I’m not going to say a lot, but know that this is appreciated,” Moore said. “It’s been an honor and a pleasure to serve the sheep industry.”

Anderson is the largest sheep producer, lamb processor and sheep industry supporter in Brownsville, Ore., according to NLFA Past President Bob Harlan, but his impact goes way beyond that small Oregon town.

When his family ran into problems getting lambs processed, Anderson took the bold step of building his own facility, and now supplies Oregon grass-fed lamb to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Pacific Northwest. For his efforts, he was honored with just the third Industry Innovator Award presented by ASI.

“I’m really just a plagiarizer, not an innovator. My family are the ones who really do all the work,” said the humble Anderson, who went on to add, “All of the people in this room had something to do with our success. Thank you.”

Caskey spent more than 40 years educating sheep producers through the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program in southwest Minnesota. And despite the role he played in their successes, Caskey was quick to credit the program’s producers.

“They were the ones who embraced new technology and new ideas 40 years ago,” he said. “Those producers are the ones I really need to thank. As a group, they’ve been so willing to share what they’ve learned.

As Cox said in introducing him, Lane Nordlund seems to be everywhere while “carrying our message, which he does so well.”

The Montana Ag Network reporter said the ASI Annual Convention is his favorite among the stops he makes each year covering agriculture and livestock not only in Montana but across the nation.

“That’s because of the friendships I’ve made here,” he said. “I’m honored to be recognized for mine and Russell’s (Nemetz) work on television.”

Susan Crowell retired last year as editor of Farm and Dairy, an Ohio-based ag newspaper, but her commitment to the industry lives on. In her acceptance speech, she urged producers to “Be bold.”

“Now’s not the time to be timid,” she said.

In addition to these awards, the Wool Roundtable chose Aggie and Joe Helle as winners of the 2020 Wool Excellence Award. The Montana couple worked diligently to develop their own fine wool flock while also looking for ways to serve the industry.

Joe, who passed away in October 2019, served as a past chair of the ASI Wool Council and as a past president of the Montana Wool Growers Association. Aggie was heavily involved in the Montana Make It With Wool program and went on to serve two years as coordinator of the national contest. It was her family that brought Joe into the fine wool industry.

“Joe would have been so honored to be here and receive this award. On his behalf, I say thank you to all the sheep producers and those we have worked with. It’s been a wonderful time serving the sheep industry and putting together some of the finest wool in the country,” Aggie said. “We go back a couple of generations with the fine wool sheep, and our family has been so supportive. They are carrying it forward now with the Duckworth brand and working with other producers to get them involved, as well.”


Joe, Aggie Helle Win 2020 Wool Excellence Award

January 8, 2020

Duckworth might be among the premier fine-wool, American-made clothing companies, but it didn’t get that way overnight. Joe and Aggie Helle proved to be company cornerstones thanks to their efforts at constantly improving the family ranch’s wool clip, which provided Duckworth with the raw, natural fiber needed to produce its performance products.

For their efforts, Joe and Aggie have been chosen as the 2020 Wool Excellence Award winners by members of the Wool Roundtable. While Joe passed away in October 2019, Aggie will accept the award this month at the ASI Annual Convention in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“We just always enjoyed working with and promoting wool,” said Aggie, whose father bought his first Rambouillet sheep in the 1940s. “My dad was always keen on white-faced, fine-wool sheep. When Joe and I started in sheep in 1967, we bought a band of sheep from my family. I’d always been involved in helping dad on the ranch. I can even remember trailing a band 15 miles to town when I was 14 years old.”

Joe, who spent his childhood summers on a ranch his grandmother worked on, had a background in range ecology. But he took to the sheep quickly. As they learned the business, both Joe and Aggie took on leadership roles.

Joe served as president of the Montana Wool Growers Association, on the ASI Executive Board and is a past chair of the ASI Wool Council. Aggie ran the Montana Make It With Wool program before serving as the program’s national director. She has also served on industry committees, including the Resource Management Council and as president of the ASI Women.

“Everything they did, they did together,” said their son John, who took the family’s ranching operation to a whole new level with the development of Duckworth. “It was always a team effort with them. Dad also did a lot with Center of the Nation Wool to get that started. They were always supportive of the industry and didn’t have a problem putting their time and money into it because they realized that it would help everyone, including our ranch.”

Joe joined with a group of Montana ranchers to lobby for the Wool Trust that was established with help from then Montana Sen. Max Baucus. The Wool Trust financially supports ASI’s marketing of American wool both domestically and internationally.

“My husband was a humble man, but also very capable and talented,” Aggie said. “We’ve been supportive of the wool and sheep industry since before ASI even existed, so I’m happy to accept this award.”

Joe also served as chief product tester for Duckworth. A longtime fan of wool, he wore Pendleton shirts, fine wool suits and wool socks in the years before new manufacturing processes developed wool that could be worn next to the skin.

“He became one of my first product testers, and he wore Duckworth products all the time. That’s just who he was. He was always wanting to do more and more with our wool, and he was my greatest supporter on the ranch. He was a great sounding board when we started developing Duckworth.”

ASI Deputy Director Rita Samuelson worked with Joe on the Wool Council and saw first-hand his commitment to developing a flock that would produce quality American wool. She also has found memories of Aggie’s time running the Make It With Wool contest.

“Aggie coordinated such wonderful shows at the annual Make It With Wool banquet,” Samuelson said. “And Joe was always a champion for the American wool industry. He definitely practiced what he preached by building outstanding genetics in his Montana flock. His practices and his passion have already fueled two generations who have followed in his footsteps and continue to be innovators within our industry.”

The Wool Excellence Award will be presented during the Wool Recognition Lunch on Thursday, Jan. 23, beginning at 11:30 a.m. A ticket is required to attend the lunch.

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