Warm and fuzzy
January/February 2017 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee and Matt Salvo and courtesy of Cal Poly Pomona
Nonprofit group puts discarded wool to good use
People who tend small flocks of sheep often find their flocks don't produce enough wool to warrant selling.
Mendocino County businessman Ray Sarna recognized that as an opportunity to help a good cause.
His nonprofit organization, Wool for Worthy Causes, collects what would otherwise be discarded wool from farms and schools throughout the state and donates it to charitable organizations that hire people with disabilities. Those individuals then process and sew the wool into blankets destined for U.S. military department stores; they're also available for purchase online.
"This is a way to be able to offer high-quality blankets for a very low price," Sarna said.
Wool for Worthy Causes grew out of Sarna's desire to pursue public service in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He founded the company Good Deed Organization, which manufactures and supplies fabrics and clothing to service programs such as AmeriCorps and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. In trying to help the institute find more work for its employees, Sarna suggested making blankets for the U.S. military. Rather than purchasing the raw materials to make the blankets, Sarna had a different idea: to make use of the mounds of wool that small farms often can't use.
"What we're doing is we're reducing (the institute's) cost," he said.
Stanislaus County sheep rancher Ron Alves, left, and Wool for Worthy Causes founder Ray Sarna examine donated wool being bagged for collection.
An opportunity to give back
To find enough wool and to round up potential donors, Sarna first attended a sheep show, where he connected with Stanislaus County sheep rancher Ron Alves. A retired agriculture and science teacher, Alves has been raising sheep since 1974, primarily show lambs that students raise as part of their projects for Future Farmers of America or the 4-H youth development program.
Alves had been selling his wool to a broker, but he said the wool market has been in the doldrums for years and the price he earns is so small that the cost of shearing and hauling the wool to market makes it almost a wash. Some sheep breeds, such as those raised for meat, do not produce the type of luxury fleece that has a high value. Some ranchers may also choose not to market lower grades of wool.
Donating it to Sarna—and receiving a tax credit for it—actually makes more economic sense, Alves said. His ranch now serves as a collection hub for seven other small producers who also donate their wool to Sarna.
"From a standpoint of trying to be as sustainable and environmentally conscious as possible, why throw something like that away?" Alves said. "We also feel we need to give back to the communities as much as we possibly can, and this is one of the ways of doing it."
From there, it became "friend tell a friend," Sarna said, adding that most sheep producers know others with sheep, and they're helping to spread the word.
"When you multiply this among the many, many small growers, you get a lot of wool," he said.
Sarna also sought the help of agriculture teachers, making a pitch at one of their conferences. Some 60 teachers have expressed interest in helping him collect wool. Most of them have students with project lambs or own sheep themselves, he said.
Claire Southerland, left, a veterinary student at Cal Poly Pomona, shears wool that will be donated to Wool for Worthy Causes. East Nicolaus High School FFA teacher, right, Laura Goss shows her students how wool from different parts of the animal's body has different characteristics.
Lessons beyond the classroom
Laura Goss, an FFA teacher at East Nicolaus High School in Sutter County, has been involved in the project for the last two years. Before that, she had been giving the wool from student-raised sheep to the shearer. If he didn't want it, "we just tossed it," she said.
"I knew there really wasn't a market for it and there really wasn't any place for me to go with it at that point," she added.
Her shearer had heard about Wool for Worthy Causes and suggested she contact Sarna. The school now acts as a collection point for donated wool. Three of Goss' students also have contributed directly as part of their senior FFA projects. One student helped build racks that support the wool-collecting sacks, enabling more wool to be packed and for loading to be easier. Another student made a presentation to a sheep-producers association, encouraging members to donate their unwanted wool. A third student is working on a marketing brochure for Wool for Worthy Causes.
"The kids are learning something from it," Goss said. "They feel a sense of pride for being a part of the work and collecting the wool."
She's also telling other teachers and parents about the project, letting them see and touch the blankets the donated wool is used to make.
"They find out that it's the school of the blind that's making blankets that are going to the military, and they're like, 'Oh, my goodness,'" Goss said. "They get that 'aha' moment. The students, too—they're like, 'This is cool.'"
She said she's gotten great response from producers who have donated wool, many of whom were throwing it away.
"They feel like there's actually a purpose and they're not wasting it anymore," she said.
Wool for Worthy Causes grew out of Ray Sarna's desire to pursue public service in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
A model for the nation
Once Sarna collects enough wool, he transports it to a holding facility in Ojai before donating it to the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. It takes about 2 1/2 pounds of wool to make a blanket. Last year, Sarna collected about 40,000 pounds of wool; he started with just a couple hundred pounds his first year in 2012. At that time, he was making individual trips to the various donating ranches up and down the state.
Now, with the help of teachers such as Goss and schools as collection hubs, he's making fewer trips, but he acknowledged the work is still very time-consuming and the method inefficient. His hope, he said, is to find more volunteers "to take on the responsibilities of coordinating things." He said he also wants to take Wool for Worthy Causes nationwide, with the state project as a model for other programs around the country. That way, more unwanted wool may be put to good use.
"It's a noble effort for everybody," Sarna said. "Those who are involved recognize that same idea—that it really is a good thing to do."
Different uses for wool
When you think of wool, your favorite sweater or other apparel may come to mind. But the versatile material is used in many ways and has woven itself into our everyday lives.
Pressed felt is made from wool fibers that are mechanically pressed using heat, moisture and pressure. Felt is used to make everything from hats to banners, board erasers, insoles and pool-table covers.
Aside from blankets, wool is found in numerous items in and outside of your home: carpets and rugs, upholstery, wall coverings, insulation and sound-proofing barriers. If you open up your mattress, pillow, cushions, comforter, quilted jacket lining, baseball, the toes of ballet shoes, saddle or bicycle seat, you'll likely find wool in the filling or padding. Wool also is used to make cleaning pads, venetian blind dusters, mulch pads for erosion control and oil filters.