June Colony of Lostine continues to find new markets for her farm products. By marketing different qualities of fleece on eBay she’s discovered she can greatly increase the price of a pound of wool. (KATY NESBITT/WesCom News Service)
LOSTINE — June Colony of Lostine continues to find new ways to expand not only markets for her products, but for other small farmers in the Wallowa Valley.
Colony has successfully won and fulfilled the requirements for U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to expand local markets for the produce and sheep she raises, but said the key to successful grant completion is working with other producers.
“When you work in partnership it creates a bigger project,” she said.
Her most recent grant was awarded in 2011 and completed this fall. It provided her with money to buy a truck, trailer and have a walk-in cooler built on her farm. During harvest season, Colony can drive into the field or garden of a Wallowa County producer. The trailer carries water and has a three-sink wash station, fold-down shelves to cut and process the food that can then be left with the producers or stored in Colony’s cooler. Even in January, Colony said, the cooler is “stuffed front and back with root crops.”
The cooler is available to others and maintains a consistent 41 degrees, Colony said. Her potatoes are available for sale at M.Crow’s in Lostine, the Dollar Stretcher in Enterprise and the indoor Lower Valley Farmers Market in Wallowa.
Colony said she is a licensed food handler, but said the USDA is coming out with more rules soon to regulate small farm operations to ensure food safety.
“The biggest nut to crack this winter is taking insurance coverage to another level,” she said, adding there is coverage available specializing in food safety concerns.
Colony said she developed an extra gardening plot — in addition to her own — to extend to the community for people to grow produce for their own use or to sell. The grant, Colony said, included education, and by offering the community garden space she is able to train more market gardeners.
Bringing in other farmers’ produce, Colony created the brand “The Producers Network.”
“We’re expanding the aggregate of small producers while providing reliability and high-quality products,” she said.
Some of the produce Colony sells at her own June’s Local Market in Lostine isn’t grown in Wallowa County. She brings in melons and other fruit and tomatoes that are harvested earlier in the lower farmland country. She said she has relationships with seven producers in the Walla Walla Valley, Clarkston and Hermiston.
“The grant had me look at local a little differently,” she said. “The foods I bring in are part of the ‘food stream’ of Wallowa County. Old-timers say they used to go to Milton-Freewater and bring back boxes of tomatoes or peaches to can.”
Colony applied for a USDA grant back in 2006 that was to build sustainable local agriculture. With it she helped 50 people learn how to build hoop houses.
“The first attempt was trying to reach out to producers and have them grow more product, but then I realized there was more demand,” she said.
Over the past couple years, Lostine and Wallowa have joined the Farmers Market movement started in Joseph and Enterprise. These popular venues encourage producers to expand their offerings and consumers to think outside the produce section when they shop.
Wanting to find better ways to market her sheep’s fleece, Colony worked with a USDA grant in 2007 and 2008 to create value-added products. To diversify her flock, she began crossbreeding Wensleydale and Targhee sheep breeds that are both good meat and wool producers and hardy enough for the Wallowa Valley winters. She said she now has about 50 head of sheep in her herd.
Colony said the wool market was so minimal some producers throw their wool into a pool and make about $1 a pound while others simply burn it. Not wanting to do either, she stored her wool for several years until she could find a reasonable market for it.
“Wool doesn’t rot,” she said.
So while she stored up her wool, she also worked to figure out how to improve opportunities for other wool producers.
“I had to figure out how to include others to raise sheep to get a dual income out of their sheep as well,” she said.
Her next step was to develop a business plan and secure a loan, but the Great Recession hit and financiers weren’t lending money for marketing small farm products, until recently. Farm Service Agency in Pendleton helped Colony secure a low-interest loan that helped her purchase two big pieces of equipment — a wool picker that separates 100 pounds of fiber a day, and a pin felter that washes and picks wool. Both will be ready for local wool producers’ use late this summer, Colony said.
She explained the different wool, even off one animal, can have different qualities and uses. The fleece off of a sheep’s belly is short and can be used for batting or for stuffing pillows. Some of the fleece is good for felting and making hats and scarves. Long wool can be carded into extremely fine fleece.
“I grade out the fleece,” she said. “Each is a different product.”
The finer fleece that is washed, sorted and packaged sells for $25 for 10 ounces. The next level of quality goes for $15 a pound and the lower quality is made into batting. The lowest grade is felted into saddle pads or rugs, Colony said.
The winter is a good time for projects, she said, like creating products with her stockpile of wool and marketing it online. By mid-summer, her equipment will be available to the public. She said besides having a wool washing and picking station for other producers, and the machine quilter she purchased with the loan, she envisions an even greater community benefit.
“I see the equipment as a source of employment,” Colony said.