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Stories from the valley

Strength in Numbers: The California Wool Growers Association

Contributed by Dan Macon

In mid-August, the California Wool Growers Association held its 158th annual meeting in Cambria, California. Sheep producers of all sizes, types and locations came together on the Central Coast to learn, set policy, and celebrate the completion of another year for California’s oldest livestock organization. And I have the honor of serving as the organization’s president for the next two years!

As I write this, I realize that the name “Wool Growers” may be somewhat puzzling to those outside the sheep industry (and even to some within the industry). While our organization represents all kinds of sheep producers (from large scale commercial operations to micro-scale fiber and show lamb producers), our name is a nod to our heritage. The California Wool Growers Association was founded in 1860 in San Francisco by a group of sheep producers who needed to market their wool. These forward-thinking ranchers – in California’s first quarter century as a state – secured a sailing ship to carry their wool around Cape Horn to the wool mills on the East Coast. As time went on, the California Wool Growers Association became the voice of the California sheep industry – representing ALL sheep ranchers on issues like labor availability, predator protection, market access, and land use. Wool remains an important commodity (indeed, it’s enjoying a renaissance as a renewable and sustainably produced fiber); meat production and targeted grazing for fire prevention have become equally (if not more) important.

The challenges of the 1860s are not the challenges we face today – although there are some similarities. As independent producers, we have typically relied on others to process and market our products. While our independence is a strength in many ways (for example, most of us raise the kind of sheep that best fit our environment and our markets), cooperation is often critical to our collective success. Working together, we can influence the laws and regulations that impact our ability to market our products. Working together, we can help provide resources to new producers (like educational materials, support for investment, and access to information). Working together, we can help an increasingly non-agricultural public understand the benefits of sheep grazing for reducing fire threats, invasive weed problems, and ecosystem restoration.

Like any segment of California’s agricultural community, the sheep ranching community is not monolithic in its issues or its outlook. The issues that concern my predecessor as president, Ryan Indart from Clovis, are somewhat different than some of the issues that concern me. For Ryan, who operates on a large scale in the San Joaquin Valley, the issues of immigration, exchange rates (especially with New Zealand and Australia), and trade policy loom large in his business. For me, as a small-scale, part-time rancher in the Sierra Foothills, land use, access to USDA-inspected processing, and options for protecting my sheep from predators are critical. The California Wool Growers Association, as the voice for all sheep producers regardless of size, addresses all of these issues. More importantly, in my mind, our association provides a forum for all of us to learn from one another.

“Shepherd” is a word that I particularly like. The primary definition is probably obvious – “a person who herds, tends, and guards sheep” The second definition on is equally pertinent – “a person who protects, guides, or watches over a person or group of people.” For the leadership of the California Wool Growers Association, we add this second meaning to our primary responsibilities. While we face many challenges in 21st Century California, I’m confident in our tenacity, unity and enthusiasm as an organization.  We’ll need the foresight and energy of our founders – and the effectiveness and communication tools of our youngest members! I’m tremendously excited about these next two years. I’m humbled that my colleagues have confidence in my abilities to help “shepherd” our organization.