A New On the Rise Era for an Old Industry

By Sheila Hildebrand

The Montana Wool Growers Association (MWGA) hosted its 136th Annual Convention, December 5 – 8 at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center.  The convention hosted a diverse array of events and messages; all of which communicated an exuberance for what was off-handedly referred to as the world’s second oldest industry.  The convention simultaneously pushed the muscle of progression, all the while, honoring the industry’s past by giving credence to a tenacious and tough walk of life.

In its membership flier, the organization asserts that “The Montana Wool Growers Association was established in 1883 at the first annual convention in Fort Benton, Montana, making it the state’s oldest agricultural organization.  The resolutions passed at that convention reflect how things have not changed much in the sheep industry.  Growers in 1883 were concerned over wool and lamb imports, grazing on public domain, predator control and expanding the markets for both lamb and wool.”

MWGA Executive Secretary Jesse Thompson said this year’s convention was attended by approximately 160 members and guests.  The organization currently reports membership of approximately 500.  Thompson said the most recent convention saw increased attendance and garnered “excellent feedback.”

In particular, Thompson was encouraged by the youth in attendance.  She noted that many ranches are beginning to turn to the next generation and the younger generation appears to be embracing the sheep industry with optimism and new ideas.

To this point, Galata producer Dave McEwen added, “people in the sheep industry are salt of the earth.  Out of state money isn’t necessarily interested in the sheep industry – there simply isn’t enough glory in the game.”

That perception presents tremendous opportunity for young sheep producers.

Convention Highlights 

Montana Wool Lab

Thompson cited the organization’s close working relationship with Montana State University as a tremendous triumph for Montana sheep producers.  In her keynote address, MSU President Waded Cruzado affirmed the University’s commitment to the industry, particularly as it relates to the future of the Montana Wool Lab.  President Cruzado expressed commitment to education, research/technology, and producer services.

According to McEwen, the University looks to producers to “provide direction regarding the direction of the lab.”  McEwen serves on the Exploratory Committee, which is tasked with working with the state’s producers to define the future of the Montana Wool Lab.

In the “Future of the Industry Discussion Panel,” producers noted with confidence that Montana, along with South Dakota and Wyoming, are the producers of the nation’s finest wool clip.  The Montana Wool Lab was partially credited for this level of industrial excellence.  Currently, in the U.S., Montana (MSU) and Texas (Texas A&M) are the predominant wool facilities.

In 1947, the Wool Lab was a “State of the Art” facility with cutting age technology; however, members echo concern as they contemplate whether the current wool lab is functioning as a laboratory or a history museum.  Without reservation, producers chimed in with undaunted support making progressive comments such as “go big or get left behind,” and “we need a scientist; not a laboratory manager.”  Members reflected upon whether a new facility may be the most viable solution in order to reassert Montana’s position as a technological leader.

The conversation looked optimistically at the fiber industry, of which wool accounts for less than 3 percent.  The youthful crowd saw untapped opportunity as they qualified their enthusiasm with a listing of innovative ideas and avenues.  Wool is used extensively in the military and is natural fire retardant being utilized in safety wear and structural insulation.  Members also mentioned new opportunities in the medical field.  Wool has antimicrobial characteristics presenting natural healing properties for skin related diseases and burn victims.

Evan Helle, co-founder of Duckworth Co., a Dillion based sheep ranch turned active wear producer, is optimistic about wool’s role in the fiber industry.  Duckwork has capitalized on the public’s desire to understand the origination of the products they purchase.  The company utilizes their holistic image as consumers identify the Helle sheep operation with the base layers they sport on the slopes.

Predation and The WGA’s Relationship with Wildlife Services

In Wildlife Services Deputy Administrator Janet Bucknall’s keynote address, she reaffirmed the agency’s desire to support and partner with sheep producers.  Bucknall quoted excerpts from “The Lady and Lions,” a larger than life telling of the first female government trapper at the turn of the century in southern Texas.  Bucknall’s presence, and her no-nonsense candor was repetitively cited as a “breath of fresh air” to the sheep industry.

Bucknall provided information regarding the newly approved 15-year label for M-44, marking a huge victory for producers.  McEwen said M-44 is an insecticide used as a lethal solution in predator control.  M-44 is a cyanide-based solution (sodium cyanide) delivered in a gaseous state through a spring loaded device.  McEwen said M-44 is humane with asphyxiation occurring in about 10 seconds and less than 1 percent non-target fatalities.

“Predatory control is an enormous obstacle for sheep producers,” McEwen said.

Not only have predators posed a costly concern in livestock loss, but McEwen said the exponential increase in grizzly bear, wolf, and wild pig populations have led to personal safety issues.  The issue has also become more a of public relations concern as rural and urban populations become more philosophically disconnected, McEwen added.

Bucknall assured the crowd that “protecting livestock from predators and disease is the heart and soul of Wildlife Services.”  Bucknall was happy to share that “under this administration, the Wild Life Services Budget is not threatened.”  She also was sure to acknowledge that “grizzlies are top news here” and noted that the subject provides opportunity for cooperation between federal agencies.

Naked Sheep, Pasties and Pints

The MWGA Annual Sheep Shearing Contest may have been the social highlight of the convention.  According to Thompson, the event is growing each year and 2019 marked the largest crowd to date.  The contest is one of the organization’s most successful fundraising events, presenting an opportunity for members, the business community and politicians to raise their hands as bidding ensues in Calcutta form.

Mike Hollenbeck and Lane Green auctioned the shearers.  For each shearer, the Calcutta buyer selected a wing man.  As the shearer completed their assignment, the wing man was tasked with eating a pasty and chugging a pint.  The fastest four teams were re-sold and re-matched in a final face-off.

This year, the event drew 12 shearers; one of whom resides in Canada.  The 2019 Speed Shearer Champion, with the fastest sheep shearing, pasty eating, and beer guzzling time composite was Ryan Keyes from Livingston, Montana.

The earnings from the Sheep Shearing Calcutta and the live auction will be used to support shearing schools throughout the state and the Montana Wool Lab.

Convention Business – The Loose Ends

During the convention, the electorate selected three new board members as follows: Ken McKamey (Cascade) – President; Duane Tolcott (Hammond) – Vice President; and Scott Blackman (Craig) – Member at Large – Western District.

MWGA also offered gracious thanks to Jesse Thompson as the organization accepted her resignation from the position of Executive Secretary.


A Post Convention Reflection

As the MWGA Convention came to a close, Dave and Lenora McEwen offered some insight into the sheep industry.  Noting the ambitious youth in attendance, McEwen candidly shared of untold obstacles and the opportunities found in a shrinking industry.

With about 250,000 sheep in the state of Montana, McEwen said those numbers present a futuristic challenge.  In order to maintain a competitive business infrastructure, the sheep industry must maintain its numbers.  He pointed to the fact that the industry has seen a shift from large (and perhaps financially powerful) producers to much smaller farm flocks.  While Montana currently has four auction markets that service the sheep industry, McEwen said numbers will affect that equation, along with slaughter and feed yard facilities.

The McEwen’s entry into the sheep industry was somewhat unconventional.  When McEwen was laboring on a cattle operation owned by an attorney, he quickly realized that he would much prefer to spend his labors on his own goals.  Lenora began the McEwen sheep operation by acquiring bum lambs from Fred Itcaina.  When a hiccup in the cattle market resulted in Lenora’s bums being more profitable than the couple’s cattle, they were officially pursuing the sheep industry.

As first-generation ranchers, they purchased a “small little bunch of ewes.  There was about 70 head of ewes… 5… heck… maybe 6 years old.  Well, they were a little long in the tooth.”

In 1992, they partnered with a family who was willing to sell their chunk of Montana – contract for deed.  Proudly, and perhaps with a bit of emotion, McEwen shared their story.  He added in casual conversation, “How many cows do you run?  You know, you would be surprised about the return on investment if you rolled that into sheep!”


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