Lake Superior Woolen creates sustainable product niche in the U.P.

Three Eastern Upper Peninsula farmers have created a profitable company from a product that normally fetches a very low market price. Here's how a company was born that helps keep us warm while producing a sustainable product .
Lake Superior Woolen Company is keeping people in the Upper Peninsula and beyond warm and comfy with 100 percent natural wool blankets and mattress pads. The wool for the blankets comes from sheep on two farms in the Eastern Upper Peninsula: the Wallis farm in Rudyard, and the Collins farm in Pickford.
"We get orders from all over the United States mostly," says Selden Collins, who is a part of this business venture along with Eric and Penny Wallis.
Like many businesses above the bridge, Lake Superior Woolen Company was born out of the need to diversify and come up with another stream of revenue for these farmers. Both farms have been producing wool, lamb meat, and breeding stock for many years. The Wallis family has been in the lamb business for over 100 years and currently overwinters around 620 ewes; the Collins farm keeps 40 to 45.
The lambs graze the mostly flat hay fields during the summer months. Wolves are a constant problem for the shepherds. After several different attempts to guard the flock the Wallises turned to domesticated dogs to guard the flock: Great Pyrenees, a gentle, if not overprotective canine.
While many of us slumber away the nights during early spring, sheep farmers are up all night at the ready for when the young lambs are delivered by the ewes. Soon after, it's time to shear the lambs, an event in itself. Professional lamb shearers, some of whom travel from afar, set up in the barns and go to work. For the Wallises, it is two days of steady work, dusk until dawn.
After the sheep are shorn, the fleece is sorted into first- and second-grade wool. First-grade wool consists of clean fleeces, while second-grade wool includes dirty fleeces, topknots (the wool from the head), and leg wool. The wool is then bagged, weighed, marked, and prepared for shipment to MacAusland's Woolen Mill in Prince Edward's Island, Canada.
Several years ago the price of wool declined drastically, due mostly to a glut of wool flooding the market from Australia. With the cost of shearing the sheep by a professional shearer at about 30 cents a pound, it wasn't real profitable to sell the wool; in fact, sometimes the price of wool per pound is less than what it costs per pound to shear the lambs.
It was Collins who found out about MacAusland's Woolen Mill. Collins had sent some of her wool there to be made into blankets. She shared her find with the Wallises, which led to the eventual formation of Lake Superior Woolen. Now they send over 3,500 pounds of wool to the company each year. About five months later, finished blankets are shipped back to the EUP, 10 to 12 per box.
"The shipping is expensive, but we don't have anywhere in the States that does this," says Collins of the arrangement with the Canadian company.
Eric Wallis handles much of the business side of the company, processing orders and monitoring the website. Collins sews the mattress pads and distributes the pamphlets, many to Michigan Welcome Centers. Business decisions are handled by all three farmers at the kitchen table of either farm.
Lake Superior Woolen Company sells mattress pads, lap blankets, full-sized blankets, and queen-sized blankets. They come in a variety of colors with the most popular being a neutral tweed. Blue heather, which looks a lot like denim, also sells well. They can be purchased in many locations around the U.P., and of course via their website.
Collins says they don't know exactly who their market is but suspect it is people who are looking for a natural product and those who wish to buy local.
"It is truly a sustainable product," says Collins of the blankets and pads that help support the family farms.
Although none of these business partners grew up in the age of the Internet, Collins says the website allows them to take orders from all parts of the globe. They've also been consulting with Lake Superior State University and are considering social media as a marketing tool, including a Facebook page.

Neil Moran is a freelance writer in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and owner of Haylake Business Communications. You can find him on Twitter at @moranwrite.
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