An interview with Marie Hoff, a fiber producer and advocate of carbon farming and sustainable wool production.
While on a bicycle tour down the Pacific Coast a couple of summers ago, I had the opportunity to stop and spend a few hours with Marie Hoff. Hoff operates Capella Grazing Project, an initiative to link land stewardship with local agriculture. She herds Ouessant sheep, moving them around the Sonoma and Mendocino area to graze in local orchards, vineyards, and landscapes.
We had connected when I was working on a piece about carbon farming. It’s one thing to interview someone by phone, and it’s another thing to get to spend time with them on their land. It was a foggy, chilly, coastal Northern California day, but those hours with Hoff and her sheep stuck with me and I have followed her work ever since.
An advocate of carbon farming, last year she launched Full Circle Wool, selling climate beneficial wool and wool products. One of them is a wool sponge, made for either body or dishes. I’ve been using mine since December and love it. I’ve been trying to shift away from synthetics in my wardbrobe, and this helps me to do the same in the kitchen.
Particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in the kitchen caring about what we cook and what we cook with, it’s nice to have yet another element that links our food production process to the land and a more sustainable way of doing agriculture.
As someone who raises sheep, Hoff has an intimate relationship with the food and fiber connection. I caught up with her to learn more about her work with wool and carbon farming.
How did you get into carbon farming?
Through Fibershed, and Marin Carbon Project. Learning about the Carbon Farm Plan that Stemple Creek operates from, and seeing the numbers from the trials that Marin Carbon Project did, I was inspired to move forward with engaging and promoting carbon farming. I created Full Circle Wool as a business in order to cultivate the world I live in towards one in harmony with nature, with a sustainable future ahead.
How did you come up with the idea to make wool sponges?
I’m always looking for ways to live without plastic or synthetic fibers, and sponges are one of the things I buy regularly that are really hard to find without plastic – either the sponge itself and the dyes used on it are synthetic, or the packaging is plastic. I wanted a “good” option: something made of natural fibers, not processed with synthetic chemicals, undyed, and not packaged in plastic. I had a wool coaster made by one of the Fibershed producers (Jackie Post, from Sheep to Shop) and I looked at it and thought, “I bet I can use that to clean the dishes.” It basically worked, but the size was a little small. So from there I experimented with size and thickness of wool felt until I came up with a consistent size.
Wool will tighten up a bit with changes in temperature (going from hot to cold water) or agitation (scrubbing dishes), so I needed to make them a size that they could tighten up and end up the size that fits in your hand, like a regular sponge shape. And then once they tighten, they hold true.
Wool is very much an underutilized resource, what do you think needs to change in order for us to revalue it as a product?
We need to bring domestic processing and manufacturing back to the United States. We don’t have a diversity of industrial mills that do custom work anymore.There’s only one scouring mill in the country that will clean coarse wool on the commercial scale I need, and they are overloaded. In California alone, where I am based, we produce over 3 million pounds of wool every year. Every small scale mill that’s operating is overloaded, and we only process .03% of all that wool each year here in California. The majority of it goes overseas, and is washed with synthetic chemicals, often mixed with synthetic fibers, dyed with synthetic dyes based in coal tar, and then shipped back to the US for us to consume. About 20% of it just sits in people’s barns or goes directly into the landfill, as it can be more expensive to sell the wool than to raise it and leave it.
Especially for people who raise sheep on the coast, there’s very little incentive to sell the wool because the breeds of sheep that thrive on the coast produce coarse wool, which is lower value than fine wool, like merino. Even though their families have a tradition of appreciating wool, many just consider the wool to be a byproduct of raising meat. The lamb sales are their livelihood. In order to get ranchers a return that they can make a living on, and still produce a product that most people can afford, we need that critical link of a commercial-scale mill that can process wool locally, efficiently, and for not too high a cost. The more we can prove a demand for locally grown, locally processed, and natural fibers, the more demand there will be for milling, and the more likely investors and entrepreneurs will be in investing in that type of facility. We need more demand for, and support of, local agriculture and healthy land stewardship.
What do you see as the intersections of food and fiber?
When it comes to raising sheep, the animal itself is literally the intersection of food and fiber: they grow both food and fiber at the same time. People the world over have traditionally lived in deep reliance on their relationship with animals, societies were always dependent on the products of animals, particularly livestock, for their food, clothing, shelter, even things like thread and soap and books were derived from the products of animals.
Now we’ve replaced most of these products with petroleum-based materials. But petroleum is not a long term solution, we need to return fiber back to agriculture and out of synthetics. Agriculture is often seen as just food production, but agriculture itself is where food and fiber intersect. Even if wool has currently become devalued as a “byproduct” of food production, its actually a vital material that is produced in conjunction with food. When you practice carbon farming you aren’t just sequestering carbon out of the air and into the soil, you’re also growing dinner and a sweater at the same time. You can get the dinner at your local farmer’s market, but where’s the local sweater at?