Couple who raises animals for their fiber is finding ways to help other fiber farmers

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Collen McGee brushes fiber from one of her French Angora rabbits on her farm, Rowantree Farm in Abilene.

Although they both work fulltime, two U.S. veterans decided to buy some land in Kansas and begin a new endeavor — a farm for specialty animals. The animals they raise produce fibers that are made into yarn.

In addition to working with the fiber, this spring, Collen and Michael McGee plan to open a gift store and purchase equipment to start processing wool at their farm, Rowantree Farm in Abilene. They also want to bring Kansas fiber producers together to form an association. 

The McGees started Rowantree Farms five years ago. In addition to laying hens of all types, they raise a few cows and several types of fiber animals — sheep, goats and rabbits. They also keep a couple of donkeys around to help protect their flock.

Collen McGee collects the “hair” from the animals — baby doll Southdown sheep, Pygora goats and French Angora rabbits — and brings it to HLA Fiber Mill, a mill in Butler County, where it is processed and made into yarn. She then takes the yarn and sells it at shows, online and at her soon-to-open specialty shop on their farm.

The gift shop

In addition to their own wool, the McGees plan to sell products from other fiber farmers in Kansas — including alpaca, cashmere and mohair yarn and garments — gloves, hats and scarves. Because prices are high for this specialty wool, Collen McGee offers different gradations of the fiber.

The couple plans to offer knitting, crocheting, weaving and leather crafting classes. In addition, they will offer classes on canning and making jelly and soap.

Along with their free-range eggs, the couple will sell beef raised on their land.

Collen McGee holding some of her specialty yarn on her farm, Rowantree Farm in Abilene.

Fiber farms

Like the McGees, Ruth Hawkins of Little Hawk Farm in Baldwin City has several types of fiber animals — Pygora goats, Bluefaced Leicester sheep and French Angora rabbits. 

"We are really pleased with the fiber and wool that these animals produce and how their fleeces blend and complement each other," said Hawkins, who is vice president of the national Pygora Breeders Association

Little Hawk Farm and Rowantree Farm are the only Kansas farms that are members of this organization of more than 120 members nationwide. 

Kansas fiber association

The McGees also plan to start a Kansas fiber association. This spring, one of the group’s first activities will be a Homestead Hop, where each fiber farmer will participate in an educational open house.

“There are a lot of specialty fiber producers that are small,” Collen McGee said. “The only way I can see us being successful is if we all work together. ”

Along with selling other producer’s products in their store, the McGees are planning to communicate with other farmers that have a similar outlook.

“We hope to come together and network,” Collen McGee said. “We have to find ways to help each other. We don't have a big voice until we get together.”

Although each business works well on its own, the wisdom of others can offer support.

"It is always helpful to have the support of others that have similar interest and goals," Hawkins said. "Each individual has their own individual strengths — they can do well on their own, but when brought together, they can enhance and bring out the best in each other."  

Michael McGee pets one of his goats at Rowantree Farm in Abilene.

Fiber manufacturing in Kansas and helping sheep owners with sheering costs

Kansas has two small fiber manufacturers, Shepherd’s Mill, run by Sally Brandon in Phillipsburg and Sara and John Morris of HLA Fiber Mill in Augusta. Both businesses have a several month waiting list.

Hawkins uses both mills to process her yarn.

"It has been great to be able to say that our products are raised and produced in Kansas," she said.

The McGees will only offer the beginning carding of the wool, not the finished product.

However, they will purchase a felting machine. This machine will take the lesser-quality wool and make it into a product that can be used for shoe insoles, batting and rugs.

Because wool from sheep raised for meat is not as soft as wool from fiber sheep, farmers are unable to sell their product at a profitable rate. Currently, having these sheep sheered is costly, often setting the farmer back. And because these farmers do not have an outlet for their sheep’s wool, they must bear the cost.

The McGees hope to change this paradigm. By starting a labor intensive fiber factory, the McGees hope to help farmers remain profitable. They plan to pay for the sheering of animals in exchange for their wool.

“It's a win-win situation," Collen McGee said. “We will pay for the sheering and make that wool into soles, quilt batting, chair cushions and pillow batting. Every fiber has use.”

Goats at Rowantree Farm in Abilene.

LaRon Nikkel of Blazefork Farm Fresh Lamb in Inman said exchanging his wool for sheering would help him with costs.

“Last year, it cost way more to have them sheered than what the wool was worth,” Nikkel said. “It’s a great idea.”

Nikkel is one of 1,200 Kansas ranchers who raise lamb for meat. Of the 5 million sheep in the U.S., Kansas has 73,000. 

Making wool accessible

The McGees are on a mission to educate people about wool as well as help Kansas farmers.

“We help them; we help us,” Michael McGee said. “We create an industry out of waste.”

The McGees drew up a business plan and are continually working with their animals and building their factory and gift shop.

“I just want to see people succeed,” Collen McGee said. “The joy of it is the motivation.”

Sheep graze in a pasture at Blazefork Farm Fresh Lamb in Inman.
Collen and Michael McGee feed their goats at Rowantree Farm in Abilene.