Wool, a Shear Delight in Valley Ford
By Tim Tesconi, Sonoma County Farm Bureau
Wool is making a big and welcome comeback in the pastures of the North Coast. And nowhere is that renaissance more evident than in and around pastoral Valley Ford, which has become the Northern California epicenter for wool processing and new lines of wool products.
Not long ago most of the wool from area ranches was going to the county dumps or ending up as mulch on rural property because there was no market for it. But that is all changing as new uses and amazing opportunities surface for this remarkable, natural product.
The opening of Casey Mazzucchi and Ariana Strozzi’s Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill in Valley Ford and the launch of Amy Chesnut’s Sonoma Wool Co., just a few miles away, has secured Valley Ford’s position as a thriving wool center. And there’s no better place considering the flocks of woolly sheep that graze in the pastures around the small town bisected by Valley Ford Road as it meanders through farmland to Bodega Bay and the Sonoma Coast.
The wool renaissance and the birth of Sonoma Wool Co., in particular, are an outgrowth of Joe Pozzi’s Puregrow Wool, which Pozzi founded in 1993. Over the last 21 years Pozzi’s business and influence on the dynamics of the wool market have grown like gangbusters. Today Pozzi, a director and past president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, markets more than 80,000 pounds of wool a year. All that wool comes from about 14,000 sheep, his own and from other flocks on ranches along the West Coast. PureGrow Wool is used in all natural bedding, pillows, comforters and mattresses that are sold around the country.
Chesnut, who is Pozzi’s fiancé, last year began using some of Pozzi’s Puregrow Wool for a line of her own products, sold under the Sonoma Wool Co. label. The line now includes dish drying mats, dog toys and dryer balls, wool tennis balls that can be tossed into the dryer to whisk moisture and reduce drying time. Chesnut is developing other new product lines and will soon be marketing an ironing board pad made from wool. Her products are sold online at sonomawoolcompany.com and locally at Whole Foods and other retailers.
“We are creating a line of wool products to add value to the wool we produce on the ranch. There are thousands of practical uses for wool, which is an incredible fiber,” said Chesnut, whose day job is at the Sonoma Land Trust in Santa Rosa.
She said wool not only keeps you warm, it cools you down as well. It absorbs moisture, resists mildew and mold and is inflammable. No wonder coastal sheep are so content in their woolly coats.
Casey Mazzucchi, a fourth generation Valley Ford rancher, and Ariana Strozzi, a neighboring sheep rancher in Valley Ford, teamed up to open the Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill in an old barn last August. They invested $135,000 – and tons of sweat equity -- to buy the wool processing machines and equipment, most of it salvaged from old textile mills in the South. They now proudly own and operate the only needle point loom west of the Rockies. They admit they are still learning what this magnificent piece of machinery can do in transforming wool into useable fabric and material.
The Wool Mill’s birth and launch is a tale of grit and gumption by the two very determined ranchers, who are partners in business and in life. The couple, members of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, secured a line of credit on their property after finding their business plan – based on purchasing used wool processing equipment - didn’t meet the criteria of commercial financial lenders. Not deterred, they staked their ranch to start the wool mill.
“This business is the evolution of our love of the land and the rural way-of-life in this wonderful place we call home,” said Strozzi. “We are taking wool to the next level in Sonoma and Marin counties and beyond by custom processing wool for sheep owners and by creating beautiful products made from our own sheep.”
Mazzucchi and Strozzi have 150 ewes with breeds that include horned Dorsets, Ramboulliet, Shetlands and Navaho Churro sheep. Strozzi’s son, Jack Strozzi, 17, a senior at Tomales High School and active member of the FFA, helps manage the sheep flock, loving the life he was born to. His mother has hopes he will one day carry on the sheep ranching and wool processing business.
“I am excited that what we are doing now may give Jack some future opportunities to keep the ranch a working ranch and contribute to the local economy too,” said Strozzi.
Strozzi said the demand for local wool by craft artisans and fiber mongers is similar to the consumer push for locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.
The strong demand for wool processed from the Sonoma-Marin Fiber Shed hardly gave Mazzucchi and Strozzi time to get their heads around the machinery and equipment when they opened their wool processing facility, housed in an historic barn in the center of town. Within weeks wool from nearby flocks was arriving by the sack full for processing.
“We can’t keep up with the product line fast enough,” said Strozzi. She said ranchers and crafters are pleased that, finally, a local wool processing plant has opened in the North Bay.
“I kept hearing from everyone that a wool processing facility has been talked about for years but no one could ever pull it off. Well, we rolled up our sleeves and invested more than $100,000 to make it happen,” said Strozzi.
While Mazzucchi keeps the machinery and ranches running, Strozzi oversees the retail shop while also designing and creating wool products like bedding, clothing and novelties such as wool hand warmers and computer covers. She is a whiz at the sewing machine and relishes the creative process. Her handiwork is among the items sold in the Mercantile’s retail shop, which is open Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Monday from 11 a.m to 3 p.m.
Mazzucchi and Strozzi’s Wool Mill is too small to handle the volume of wool that Pozzi markets each year. He sends his wool to Texas where it is washed and processed, eventually, the greasy wool is transformed into what are called batts, which are rolls of clean and carded wool ready to be used for bedding and other finished products.