The farm crisis of the 1980s was a difficult time for many producers. Glen Cauffman remembers that time fondly — it was the first time he had heard of Angora goats after attending a conference on alternative agriculture.
As the head of farm operations at Penn State, most of his career focused on supporting research done at the university as well as conducting his own research, much of which was geared toward conventional farmers. But Cauffman never forgot those Angoras he saw in the ’80s.
He bought 10 of them in 2005 and since then has grown his herd to over 100 animals. He retired from Penn State in 2012 and is now focused on growing his business, Pure American Naturals, which sells clothing made from his goats’ mohair.
“When you’re a commodity farmer, you take the price that you’re offered,” he says. “But when you’re using something that is an alternative, it’s not a commodity, it’s a product. Then, we can set the price.”
Tapping a growing market
Cauffman’s 190-acre farm, about an hour north of Harrisburg and only a few hour’s drive from one-third of the country’s population, is in a good spot to take advantage of the buy local movement as well as increased demand for yarn.
When he started selling mohair back in the 2000s there were only two mills that made yarns. Now, Cauffman says there are more than a dozen mills just in Pennsylvania.
“It’s like a cottage industry; a niche market that’s really springing up,” he says.
Much of the mohair is sold to Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, Vt., which makes a yarn, Mountain Mohair, made of 30% fine mohair.
Cauffman and his business partner, Judith Shoemaker, also sell and ship products made of mohair from the farm through online orders.
A smaller percentage of the mohair is sent to out-of-state processors in either Kentucky or Maine that scour the mohair for dust particles and send it through a more thorough washing process. The end market for this mohair is fashion designers in New York and other big cities.
“I have always been a manager … in dealing with economics I have always wanted more than one market in dealing with anything, and so we have more than one market,” he says.
Cultivating the ‘Diamond Fiber’
On a recent day at the farm Cauffman invited a group of prospective farmers to see how the goats were sheared as well as to collect data on the animals’ health and quality of the mohair.
Cauffman says he keeps the goats between 11 and 13 years, or until the goats are no longer producing viable mohair.
The 190 acres are split into 19 rotationally grazed paddocks — each 1 to 3 acres in size — that are planted with legumes and other diverse forages.
Cauffman practices tall grass management as the goats prefer to browse the paddocks to no less than 6 inches tall.
Grain is only provided for the last six weeks of pregnancy and the entire time the goats are lactating. Kidding mostly happens in May.
Shoemaker, who describes herself as a holistic veterinarian, says goats, like many small ruminants, are prone to getting worms. During the shearing, Shoemaker and others put each goat through a Famacha test to identify ones that needed dewormer.
They used a Famacha scorecard — originally developed in South Africa — that was introduced in the U.S. by the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control to match the color of the eye mucous membranes with a laminated color chart showing five color categories corresponding to different levels of anemia.
Barber pole worms, a problem with goats, have small teeth that can lacerate an animal’s stomach and feed on the blood, resulting in anemia.
Small but profitable
“This is one of those niche enterprises that you can get into as a small farm,” Cauffman says. “If you wanted to be a dairyman today, you have to have a half-million dollars. With this, you can do small and still be profitable.”
Even with local home spinners the mohair can bring a premium. He says that if he sold his mohair as a commodity, he could get up to $14 a pound. By comparison, some sheep producers get only 40 cents a pound for their wool, which often isn’t enough to pay the shearer.
With an ever-growing market for home spinning and many farmers looking for niche markets to make money, Cauffman says any farmer could viably set up a market with local spinning guilds that would likely pay the premium price.
“This you can get started with a couple thousand dollars, and even at that scale, with the right kind of marketing you can be profitable,” he says.
Learn more by visiting Pure American Naturals online.