NORTHFIELD, Minn. ― All wool is created equal in Theresa Bentz's mind, but it's not treated that way by the state's mills and processors.
Bentz and her husband, Jake, run Get Bentz Farm in Northfield, overlooking the Cannon River Valley in southern Minnesota, where they raise Icelandic sheep for wool and meat.
Lambing season at Get Bentz Farm began a couple of weeks ago, said Theresa Bentz, and on March 22 she said they were up "quite a lot of lambs."
"They'll be beautiful fiber in the fall," Bentz said.
The products she makes from sheep wool have gotten more attention during the pandemic.
"That local food movement is going into a local fiber movement as well, so it's been good here," Bentz said.
She also said the pandemic has meant more people are knitting, and many of them are looking for interesting textures to work with. The problem for those people and many shepherds is that there are very few mills in the state. And Bentz said most have a backlog up to a year to get a product back.
"So as a shepherd, I harvest my wool off of my animals, then I pick through it, and get it all ready to go, then I box it up and I send it to a mill," she said. "Then it takes six months to a year for me to get back a product that I can actually sell or use."
None of the mills in the state will process Icelandic wool, so Bentz sends it to a mill in Wisconsin. She said most mills focus on alpaca, merino and cormo wools, which are softer, finer fibers. Icelandic is considered a heritage breed, and the wool is dual coated.
"Not a lot of mills will actually mill it, so that's kind of where I started to think perhaps I need my own mill," said Bentz.
So that's what she's doing. With the help from a GoFundMe campaign, Bentz is buying the equipment from a mill in Minnesota that is selling theirs. They put a down payment on the milling equipment already.
"My plan is to open up the mill for people like me who have these heritage sheep, and other odd fibers, to do custom batting, roving and rug yarn for them," she said.
Once the equipment is in place, Bentz said what she'll need to learn how to use the best is fiber. She's thinking Get Bentz Farm will put on a campaign for fiber donations.
"So people can donate their fiber that they don't want or that they weren't able to have milled because of whatever reason," she said. "And I'll learn how to use the the best techniques on the equipment with it, and then if there's a good product out of it, I'll send some back."
But Bentz believes there's a use for even the bad fiber, like batting cover for vegetables on farms.
"That low-quality wool that most shepherds would just burn or compost, that can go through and become a bat, and that can be applied to gardens," said Bentz. "It can be used at the bottom of pots for your plants, because it provides a lot of nutrients and benefits to addition to the soil."