Who knew washing your breakfast dishes and preventing wildfires had anything in common?
Marie Hoff, that's who. Last week I told you about the wool sponges Marie has been selling. They've gone gangbusters.
Today we sit down with Marie and talk more about how a dance major from U.C. Berkeley ends up with a flock of sheep in Sonoma County. Marie also tells us more about the impact that her flock's grazing has had on the land, what exactly Fibershed-certified Climate Beneficial wool is, the state of California's wool supply chain, how she feels about other people making and selling wool sponges, and her hopes for the future of wool.
Clara Parkes (Host) (00:00):
What could washing your morning cereal bowl and preventing wildfires possibly have in common? Hey everyone, I'm Clara Parkes, and welcome to another episode of Voices in Wool, a podcast in which I have conversations with people whose lives touch and are touched by wool. Before we continue, I have a small request to make. If you've been enjoying the podcast so far, would you please consider leaving a rating or a review? You see the more people who do this, the more visibility the podcast gets and the wider, the word of wool can spread. Thank you. And thank you to the members of The Wool Channel. Your support makes all of this possible. Now back to our episode, we're talking with a woman in California named Marie Hoff, and she can help with that question about your cereal bowl and wildfires. In 2013, Marie took on a small flock of ouessant sheep and launched Capella Grazing in Sonoma County.
Clara Parkes (Host) (00:57):
Her clients were mainly vineyards and orchards and other kinds of private landowners who were looking for a quieter, maybe less invasive, more efficient form of lawn mower, basically, but it soon became apparent that her flock was serving another much more urgent need: preventing wildfires. Every year in California, lush spring growth quickly dries out by summer and turns into a thick layer of highly flammable material. But when you send sheep or other ruminants onto that same land and let them perform targeted, grazing those fire fuel loads can be reduced dramatically. Meanwhile, the grazing animals are fertilizing the soil, reducing invasive weeds, and eventually even helping restore native grasslands. Now using ruminants as part of a wildfire mitigation program, that's not new. Nor is using them to graze in vineyards or orchards. That's been a common practice in Europe for centuries—and grazing animals have been part of a much larger environmental cycle for, well, thousands of years.
Clara Parkes (Host) (01:59):
But back in California, as Marie's flock worked the same pieces of land year over year, Marie saw firsthand just how powerfully effective targeted grazing could be as part of a larger regenerative agriculture scheme. And she met others who were doing it on a much larger scale. It was at about this time she noticed a problem. All these farmers were doing remarkable work with their flocks of sheep. And yet every year, sometimes twice a year, the sheep would be shorn and the wool would be thrown away for lack of a market. Everybody knew there was a problem, but nobody was really in a position to step forward. And so Marie decided, okay, fine. I'll step into that gap. I'll buy the clip and I'll try to make something with it. She folded Capella Grazing into a new venture called Full Circle Wool. Which is where your end, my squeaky clean breakfast dishes come into play. Let's start the interview. I had just asked Marie how she got the idea for sheep in the first place.
Marie Hoff (03:01):
Yeah, it's such a good question because I grew up in a suburban area in Southern California and I really had almost no exposure to agriculture. I mean, I remember going out, going to like a pick your own pumpkin patch, you know, for Halloween and like maybe, um, you know, like a petting zoo. There's a cute picture of me. I'm like four and I'm hugging a goat at a petting zoo. That that's probably, that's about my exposure to agriculture up to in my twenties when I started working at farmers markets. And that wasn't working at farms, that was working at farmers markets.
Clara Parkes (Host) (03:40):
As a vendor? Or...
Marie Hoff (03:40):
Yeah. Yeah. Just coming in on the day of the market, helping the farmer seller product, which I never considered it like, oh, this is, you know, this is my trajectory. Or this is like taking me somewhere. It was just like, this is a great way to, you know, like be active and to have a job.
Marie Hoff (03:55):
And I had, I had an arts degree, you know. And so I was kind of just in my twenties, more focused on being in the bay area and collaborating and making art and covering my living expenses most basically, you know, living very, very simply. I didn't have a car. I just biked everywhere and worked a couple of days a week at farmer's markets. After I graduated college, I really wasn't focused on a career or anything like that. I really was just focused on art and dance. But as I got later into my twenties, I started feeling more and more like I really needed some, something more stable for a livelihood. And also just for a career path. Unfortunately at that time that was around, you know, 2008, 2010, not a really a great time to be trying to develop or establish a career in the Bay Area, in your twenties.
Clara Parkes (Host) (04:53):
Yeah. And the Bay Area is such an easy place to have an unconventional, you know, life that isn't involved in like tech.
Marie Hoff (05:01):
It was honestly, it felt like it was, you know, when I was first, there was the early aughts. I first moved there in like 2002 and especially Oakland great place to do that. But, you know, as we edged into that recession that just started to change. And I found myself in this place where it was like, I felt like I was competing with people who were in their forties who had like 20 years of work experience for like very basic hosts jobs at restaurants kind of thing. And then finally there was this one point where I was looking at the temp agencies and I think there were three, there were three temp agencies in the Bay Area and every single one of them was not even accepting applications. And I was like, okay, gotta make a change, like a significant change. Like it's not this, this is it.
Marie Hoff (05:55):
Like, there's, there's no opportunity for me here. I've got to move. And when I thought about it, I was like, you know, what I really wanted to just do more of is I really like working at the farmer's market. It's just, it's not like a stable job, you know? Um, how do you like advance at the farmer's market? And, you know, my little like light bulb went off and I was like, ah, you, uh, you'd go to an actual farm. And that, and I had that moment that I was just like, I've never been on a real farm. I've worked for many different farms. And at that point I was like, I've worked for different farms for like six or seven years now, and I've never been on a real working farm. And so that was, that was kind of the beginning into my like very deep dive.
Marie Hoff (06:45):
Uh, I started going out and visiting different farms, different friends that I had made over the years at the markets learning about agriculture. And I just ended up being drawn to sheep, being drawn to fiber. Uh, I wasn't, and I'm still not very interested in raising food. Uh, there's so many people that are and do a really good job of it. I feel like fiber is, I don't know. I think I'm always really interested in the underdog and like right now fiber feels like the underdog in agriculture. And it feels also like the thing that really needs developing. So I kept getting drawn to that and, uh, and drawn to west Sonoma Bodega area. And eventually in 2013 is where I had this opportunity to get this breed of sheep, the ouessant sheep. And it was one of those things that was like, you know, I had very little money at the time.
Marie Hoff (07:38):
I didn't, I had no expectation that I would ever own land in Sonoma, which is pretty expensive, but I just, you know, I had this opportunity to get these sheep. And then I had a friend who had a vineyard who was like, you can start them here. You know, I had been talking about wanting to do contracted grazing work. And he was like, you know, I have an acre and a half of vineyard here, if you want to start them here. And it was just like, when is an opportunity like this ever going to happen ever again. And so I just went with it and I dove in. And I don't know if I would really recommend that necessarily to everybody, but I just went with it and I've been working it out over the years and, and changing over the years. I actually ended up sort of merging Capella Grazing Project into a, sort of a bigger entity of Full Circle Wool, which is also buying and selling other people's wool essentially. So I call it a sheep and wool business. So I do a little bit of contract grazing, um, with animals. Certainly not enough to provide me with a livelihood. I would say at the scale that I'm at, it's mostly because I just really liked doing it.
Clara Parkes (Host) (08:55):
What scale? How big is your flock?
Marie Hoff (08:57):
Um, I focused 45 and typically we might change it up this year. There's another woman who also raises ouessant sheep and we worked together a lot. And this year we may try out running our wether flocks together. So the wethers are the castrated male sheep. And those are the ones that I typically send out to do contracts, unless it's a vineyard, the ewes go to the vineyard because they are not aggressive on the vines. Whereas I found that other sheep of this breed are. Which apparently is not, not the case with other more domesticated sheep. But, um, that makes these sheep actually that much more suitable for doing things like fuel load reduction and things like that because the wethers especially are really willing to get in there and be pretty aggressive about different kinds of brush and vines and different kinds of plants like poison oak, blackberry, leaves, at least, and coyote brush, which is invasive here in a way that is actually impactful. Whereas I think a lot of the more domesticated sheep they're, they're much more just straight browsers. They just want the grasses and the forbs. And so oftentimes people will do the mixed flocks of sheep and goats in order to get those different levels of grazing, both the grasses and the shrubs. But I found with this breed, they're kind of like a two-in-one.
Clara Parkes (Host) (10:24):
That's so fascinating. And did you know that when you have the opportunity to get them, or was it just...
Marie Hoff (10:29):
I did not know. I was shocked actually, because up until then, I had been working with a couple of different sheep ranches that they were very clear, like these sheep do not eat coyote brush. And I was just like, sheep, don't eat coyote brush. That's a thing. And then when I saw mine for the first time in an area with it, like very, very enthusiastically eating the coyote brush, I was like, whaaat? They do that? Okay, great. Excellent.
Clara Parkes (Host) (11:03):
Have there ever been times when they've eaten something they weren't supposed to or is that not even really a concern?
Marie Hoff (11:09):
No, it is a concern. It's something that I've learned to look out for. It can depend on the time of year actually, and you know, the maturity stage of the plants. There's, there's different factors that go into it. And there there've been a couple of times where I've had to like learn that kind of the hard way, but never any like real significant damage.
Clara Parkes (Host) (11:31):
So how much of the clients are like, "I have a large amount of land and I'm concerned about wildfire, I need brush prevention" versus "I need pretty lawnmowers." Or does that even exist? The pretty lawnmowers?
Marie Hoff (11:42):
In my area right now, I would say it's pretty much almost entirely the first of people who are just like, I have a lot of brush I'm freaked out about fire.
Clara Parkes (Host) (11:54):
New Speaker (11:54):
Yeah. Help. Exactly. Um, and that's very particularly in the last five years. In 2017 is when, for us, the sort of crazy wildfire seasons started happening. In Lake County it started in 2015, and then really 2017, it was just like the whole entire rest of California was like, whoa, hold on. So prior, you know, from 2013 to 17, my sort of list of benefits, right, of like, here's why you would want cheap, you know, fuel load reduction for preventing catastrophic wildfire. That was like on the bottom of the list. You know what I mean? You know, just, just to be safe, you never know, something crazy could happen. Um, and then after 2017, that became the number-one primary benefit, and still is, yeah. I had one person, one person who wanted a pretty lawn mower. And that was before 2017.
Clara Parkes (Host) (12:58):
So say I'm a landowner and I contact you. So how would it work? Do you set up a whole protocol throughout the year or is it case by case basis?
Marie Hoff (13:07):
It depends on the time of year. It depends on what other plans we have going on. It depends on property and the type of forage that's there, the access to it, access to water, how difficult it might be to bring water. Also predators. Me assessing what types of predators are in the area and what kind of danger they pose.
Clara Parkes (Host) (13:35):
Yeah. How do you... Is it guard dogs, or how do you protect them against...?
Marie Hoff (13:37):
Mainly electric netting, the electric fence. The things that are not protected by the electric fence are mountain lions and wolves, which at least for now, I haven't had to deal with wolves, but that could be something that develops more in the coming years.
Clara Parkes (Host) (13:59):
Oh my god. I know Marin totally has mountain lion problems, but where would the wolves come from?
Marie Hoff (14:03):
Well, they're basically, as far as I know, they're coming from the north and from the east. There's one pack that started developing here that came, I believe from Washington. Um, and then there's, I think there is, or there was a pack that was coming from the east. It didn't make it. And it, well, it likely didn't make it because there were just probably some ranchers that just took matters into their own hands. But wolves is a whole other ball of wax. It's like, uh, we're living in a time where there is just kind of like a pile up, I would say, of existential threats. And wolves is on, but it's actually, it's like lower on the list at this point.
Clara Parkes (Host) (14:57):
Do you ever face obstacles? Do you ever face neighbors who complain or people saying there's a one legged Bobo that's grazing in that bush, you can't have sheep near it?
Marie Hoff (15:07):
I haven't run into that. Certainly I run into challenges, but for me, I haven't had trouble with neighbors and that's probably largely just due to the scale that I'm on. You know, I'm so small that I'm pretty much just doing these like smaller private properties. And I'm not typically like running sheep from one property to another. So typically the neighbors don't really seem to have any kind of impact other than like, maybe they might hear like some baa-ing?
Clara Parkes (Host) (15:38):
Oh no! Terrible!
Marie Hoff (15:41):
Yeah. Which, I don't know. That that could be an issue, I guess if we were grazing in more of like a city area.
Clara Parkes (Host) (15:46):
You should charge them.
Marie Hoff (15:47):
You know, I think in the pandemic, that would be, that would be a thing
Clara Parkes (Host) (15:52):
I would be like, "Hey, meditation sounds coming through $50 an hour to stand near the sheep and feel better about your life."
Marie Hoff (15:59):
I have done that a couple of times actually. Yeah.
Clara Parkes (Host) (16:03):
It's amazing to think that this alone isn't enough to cover all of your expenses. You could be totally busy doing this a lot of the time, right? Yeah.
Marie Hoff (16:13):
Yeah. Like I said, it's scale. And part of the reason that I haven't scaled up, well, there's a couple of different reasons. One of them is really just like, I don't actually feel like I have the skill to do it. Um, and you know, I say that as a person who jumped in head first with sheep and I'm the kind of person who's very much like, I'll learn as I go, it'll be fine. But those larger flocks, the different kinds of skills involved, they're not, it's not just shepherding sheep. It's like being able to drive a semi-truck. Being able to, you know, move a gooseneck trailer full of sheep. It's also being able to work with other people who are shepherding the sheep, you know, like having a couple of other paid shepherds to come in. And that's, that's just a level that I, I don't really feel like I have the skillset for that. And you know, there's also a lot of capital, a lot of capital involved in just like getting to a point where you can have a 500 head or a thousand head flock, which... Yeah. I mean, I, I don't even know if I actually have space to store one of those big gooseneck trailers.
Clara Parkes (Host) (17:24):
Right. I mean, yeah, if you had 500 sheep, then they have to have some place that they live or do people just like juggle them from client to client without ever having their own land.
Marie Hoff (17:34):
Some people do.
Clara Parkes (Host) (17:35):
Marie Hoff (17:37):
Well, sometimes actually it can be a benefit, you know, especially in fire country. If a fire comes through and it just like rages the land that you own, that is your home base for your sheep, you know, then what do you do? Whereas if you have a flock that is based on being movable, you know, you can move them out of state easily enough if needed.
Clara Parkes (Host) (17:59):
Eight years in, have you had clients that you've been working with year over year where you've been able to tell a difference in the land thanks to the sheep?
Marie Hoff (18:08):
Yeah, definitely. There's one, actually I really, I rely on these pictures a lot. I have this set of pictures of this place that we've been grazing since 2017. And there's this area that there's kind of like a stand of native perennial grasses. And they're very like green and lush and growing and about maybe 20 feet away on the other side of the fence is an area where you can tell that those same perennial grasses had been growing, but it's all brown. It's all dried out. The illustration from that is, is showing that, you know, with regular grazing, um, you can keep these plants living healthily and that they're green, even in August. And these other grasses that have not been grazed they're, they're just dead standing dry matter. They're just waiting to be burned.
Clara Parkes (Host) (19:07):
So is it... And I guess this is where we would be moving sort of into the Climate Beneficial wool slash Full Circle standpoint, but the grazing isn't it somehow that the action of being grazed shoots the roots deeper into the soil?
Marie Hoff (19:19):
Yeah, definitely. Um, if you're familiar with roses or geraniums or plants like that, it's very similar to that where those plants. They really thrive with occasional pruning, right? So with roses at particular time of the season, you can cut them back. I mean, my grandfather raised roses or grew, grew roses, and, you know, he would prune them back to like almost nothing at certain times of the year. And then they would grow back much healthier. They had like better structure. You know, they were very like, well, shaped, got beautiful roses off of them. And for roses that are just kind of like left without pruning, they can get kind of straggly, kind of drowning in their own dead matter. Um, they won't have as many roses or as well-formed of a shape. And it can be a similar thing in terms of grasses, especially in the area that I'm in. The different native perennial grasses, they've adopted over, who knows how many thousands, if not millions of years, to need both low intensity fire and grazing action. There have been native herbivores of all different sizes in this area for, like I said, who knows how long, going through and periodically grazing and low intensity fire, which was primarily managed by indigenous people here.
Marie Hoff (20:41):
And that combination of fire and grazing, of course, there's certainly of how it can be used inappropriately and have severe damaging effects. But it's also the tool that we need when managed well to really practice proper land stewardship. To keep everything regenerating and growing in the times when it needs to be and providing for our material needs for our food and fiber or fuel or medicine. And so that's a lot of what I'm interested in. Of how do we use these things? How do we use fire and grazing in a way that is healthy and beneficial and healing as opposed to destructive.
Clara Parkes (Host) (21:24):
And is that part of what moved you toward Full Circle? Or was it Fibershed and learning about Climate Beneficial wool? Is that what pushed you into it? Or what was the moment?
Marie Hoff (21:33):
Probably both. I think the moment was just a feeling of impatience. The, the Climate Beneficial wool label that comes from Fibershed that was developed in, I believe in concert with CCI, which is the Carbon Cycle Institute. Rebecca Burgess started Fibershed in 2011. She also sits on the board, or at least I think she probably still sits on the board, but at least at the time, she was also on the board of Carbon Cycle Institute. And in order to further develop carbon farming and, um, the implementation of carbon farm plans, Fibershed developed the Climate Beneficial wool program.
Clara Parkes (Host) (22:13):
And for those people who haven't heard of this before, what Climate Beneficial wool is, what the program is?
Marie Hoff (22:18):
Essentially Climate Beneficial fiber, be it wool or whatever kind of fiber, is coming from a landscape that is managed under a carbon farm plan. And a carbon farm plan is a plan that at least in California is developed using a trained carbon from planner. It's typically done through either a local RCD, which stands for Resource Conservation District or NRCS, which is the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And RCS is a federal program. RCDs are localized to the county. Sometimes, sometimes the lines aren't perfectly in each county. Sometimes there's a little overlap here and there, or one county will have two RCDs, but basically these plans are, um, they're developed by a third party and they're very particular to each landscape.
Clara Parkes (Host) (23:13):
So, particular to....
Marie Hoff (23:14):
Particular to its geology, its own micro climates, to the people, the ranchers or land managers or whomever, you know, what they're interested in doing on that land, what kind of plants or animals they're interested in raising, what kinds of products, you know, they're interested in raising or have the knowledge about raising. So they can be very individualized, but the thing that runs steady throughout them is that they're all developed with this sort of base concept of, we're looking at the cycle of carbon throughout the landscape, in order to understand. That's like our main organizing principle. And then using carbon as our base for understanding that allows us to then look at the general overall functioning. And I think when I say functioning, I mean both in terms of the land and the wildlife and the plants and the effect on climate, but also the people and the different cultures and just places that the different mix of people that are on that land are coming from.
Clara Parkes (Host) (24:23):
Okay, so walk us through an average carbon farm plan. Like how many components might it have?
Marie Hoff (24:29):
Typically there's like about 35 that are most commonly used that, they areNRCS practices. So they've been sort of studied and vetted through NRCS. But I think it's really important to say that all of these practices really, they come out of the indigenous cultures sometimes from cultures, from all over the world. It's kind of like an amalgamation of all these different practices that have been developed by different people over really long time periods. And then sort of like made available in this sort of like itemized list. And then the carbon farm planner goes through that list. And they're like, which of these practices make sense on this land and in according to, you know, what the land manager wants to do here? And so in that way, that's sort of like patchworking together of different practices way, I think that it's fundamentally a different way of looking at land management in this area than what an indigenous group from this area would have done or are doing now in a traditional manner.
Marie Hoff (25:35):
But I think, my interest and my goal with it is that they can dovetail, and that behind that all there's this sort of general operating principle of, we want to be able to be working in a regenerative manner. I say that based also on there's a woman named A-dae Romero-Briones who works for First Dations Development Institute. She's been really inspirational to me. And she's spoken about that. She's spoken about regenerative agriculture and a place of meeting between different indigenous groups in their approaches and their practices for land management. And there's this way of approaching land management with this base of understanding that in order to survive, long-term, we need the system to be regenerative. And there's an approach to it that is the approach that different indigenous cultures in this area have used for a long time and often continue to use. And then there's also this approach through carbon farm planning and using this sort of amalgamation of various different practices that come out of indigenous cultures from all over the world, really.
Marie Hoff (26:54):
I think that there's a way for those to coexist and to co-mingle and to kind of meet each other, as I would think, I hope, A-dae Romero-Briones would say. In terms of scale, there was a time when there were millions of acres that were being burned using cultural burning in this area. And there was a time when there were millions of native herbivores traveling in flocks around the state. And that's, that's the kind of impact that these plants are still expecting. You know, they haven't forgotten, they've evolved for a long time with that kind of impact. And, and I think that they're still expecting it. You know, they're still expecting that same kind of like cultural burning from indigenous people. They're still expecting that same kind of movement and grazing pattern from native herbivores.
Clara Parkes (Host) (27:54):
And when it is replicated, you're seeing positive results.
Marie Hoff (27:57):
I think so. I can't say that from a place of like scientific reckoning, because I'm not a scientist. Certainly from what I've observed as a small-scale practitioner and, uh, and also as a person who has gone out and I've done a lot of looking at other operations and, you know, sometimes writing about it for Fibershed's blog or for CalCAN's blog or things like that.
Clara Parkes (Host) (28:23):
So in that regard, you said that you like to root for the underdog, and you feel that the textiles are the underdog right now. So in your studying this and involvement in this, would it be fair to say that you saw, okay, these sheep are having a very positive impact and there are people all around Northern California who are doing this similar stuff. But without a market for their wool, they're hampered, they're not going to be able to be economically viable. So how can I build a market for the wool that these sheep are growing? Would that be a safe way to say it?
Marie Hoff (28:58):
Exactly. Yeah. That is exactly what I've been doing with Full Circle Wool. And, and that was probably my point to go back to that thing with what was your sort of aha moment and my feeling of impatience, of being in a place of seeing that there was all this product that was coming off the land that was being managed with carbon farming. And we had like all this data and interesting stories. And then there are essentially like consumers, you know, like people who need to be clothed, who would like to be clothed using safe, healthy materials. And then there's this giant chasm of like, how do we get there though? Because it's really the processing those pieces. We don't always have them. Um, and so it's sort of this cobbling together. And what I was seeing, especially with the coarse wool that was being grown, is that, because coarse wool, has a lesser value on the market than fine wool...
Marie Hoff (30:01):
And I think also we kind of have like just fewer applications developed for it still at this time. Um, that was kind of going by the wayside. And especially on the coast, that's really like the only kind of wool you can grow. Just because like, those are the kind of sheep that do well in that kind of wet environment. You really can't raise a Merino sheep on the coast of California. They will not thrive. Even with, you know, those finewool sheep. There's still an amount of wool that comes off of fine wool sheep that is coarse. So we had all this material and we had all this interest in a final product, but there just needed to be somebody who just came in there and was just, okay, I'll be the one, be the one that buys the wool from the producer and then gets it processed into something and makes it available to the consumer.
Marie Hoff (31:02):
And I was like, fine. I'm just going to do it. Not large scale yet. I think my first wool purchase was a couple thousand pounds of wool. That sounds like a lot, but you know, there's like over a million pounds of wool, coarse wool, that's grown in California, that could be used for this stuff. So it was really me just being like, all right. I'm just gonna... I think the year was 2016 in 2016, I was like, you know what, I'm just going to try it out. I'm going to buy wool from Loren Poncia who runs Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County. He's one of the, I think either one of the first or the first people to have a carbon farm plan. The work that he's done on his land with his animals, it's really stunning.
Marie Hoff (31:49):
And he was asking Fibershed, so what are you going to do with this wool? We're doing this great carbon farming and you love us for it, but what are you going to do with the wool? I knew that, you know, there was interest in batting and, and felt, and I was just like, I'm not going to wait for somebody else. I'm just going to do it. And I did.
Clara Parkes (Host) (32:11):
That's a big step and a big risk.
Marie Hoff (32:13):
I know! Some of it was out of pure young naivete. Like, I'll just try it!
Clara Parkes (Host) (32:19):
If you don't know what could happen, it's a lot easier to take risks.
Marie Hoff (32:24):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've made a whole bunch of mistakes. Most often those mistakes are actually what lead me to some sort of a solution, like wool sponges, which are now my primary product.
Marie Hoff (32:36):
Those are from a mistake.
Clara Parkes (Host) (32:37):
Marie Hoff (32:38):
Yeah. Those are out of me trying to figure out what to do with these wool placemats that a producer had made that just weren't selling. In my millennial entrepreneurial overdo it kind of way, I also, in when was it 2014 I think? I think I started doing a stand at the farmer's market that I organized, um, myself. Which was another way for me to sort of develop a career path for myself at the farmer's markets. And it was a group Fibershed booth. So for any Fibershed member, they could send me their product. And then when it sold, I would send them a return and I would keep a percentage of, it was like 20% or something like that as a commission for doing the selling and covering the cost of the booth and so forth. So I had these wool placemats that were beautiful.
Marie Hoff (33:31):
Essentially they were these like rectangles of felt. And I had the idea for a wool sponge because from the same producer, she also was making coasters that were wool coasters. And I was doing the dishes one day and I was using, you know, one of those really grungy, gross, yellow and green sponges? And it was so gross. And, and, you know, I just kinda like looked over at the coaster and I was like, that could be a sponge. Why not? Let me try it. And I tried it and it worked! It ended up, you know, I had to tweak it, like it became a little too small. Um, once it like, felt it up more and I was like, okay, cut it at a bigger size. It really seemed to work. And so I cut up these placemats into smaller sizes and sold them as dish sponges because, you know, it just made them that much cheaper.
Marie Hoff (34:20):
They just moved quicker. They moved more quickly, excuse me, when they were less costly and, and people were kind of intrigued with the idea. It wasn't something that I was like, yes, this is my future.
Clara Parkes (Host) (34:33):
I will be the wool sponge empire owner forever!
Marie Hoff (34:34):
Yeah. Like it wasn't me being like, yes, I have made an innovation, I've discovered something.
Clara Parkes (Host) (34:43):
Put your flag on it and declare yourself to the world!
Marie Hoff (34:43):
Yeah. And I'm still not like that. You know, I'm not interested in domination. Let's say I'm really interested much more in the set of niches, you know, of different people, developing different approaches and different businesses. If there are other people out there that would like to start selling wool sponges, I would be very happy. I would not be like, "oh no, that's my thing, you can't do my thing!"
Clara Parkes (Host) (35:09):
"I'm going to sue you!"
Marie Hoff (35:10):
Well I couldn't.
Clara Parkes (Host) (35:10):
"I trademarked 'wool sponge'!"
Marie Hoff (35:10):
Clara Parkes (Host) (35:12):
Well, you'd have to spell it "Wool Spunj" or something.
Marie Hoff (35:17):
Oh God. Oh no. Um, no. Yeah. I think there is one on the East Coast called Echo View?
Clara Parkes (Host) (35:25):
Oh right, Echo View Fiber Mill!
Marie Hoff (35:27):
Yeah. I think like they started selling wool sponges recently. There was a woman in England she's been selling my sponges in her shop and she was looking into trying to get some made there.
Clara Parkes (Host) (35:38):
Would that be Rachel Atkinson?
Marie Hoff (35:41):
Uh yeah. I think she's still trying to find a felter that would do that kind of felt. But you know, how great of a use would that be for all the coarsewool that's grown in the UK, that would be so great.
Clara Parkes (Host) (35:53):
And it's really what you say. The world cannot live on fine wool alone. Those animals don't thrive everywhere. And that's really where the need is to find uses. The sponges are brilliant. Also, I can understand how they would take off. Instead of just being a beautiful decorative object, suddenly you're inserting wool in a functional role that people have never thought about before.
Marie Hoff (36:18):
Clara Parkes (Host) (36:19):
It's really, really clever.
Marie Hoff (36:21):
Clara Parkes (Host) (36:21):
So what's, what's next. What's next? What other functional goals have you thought of?
Marie Hoff (36:26):
I know just, well, right now, I'm just kind of trying to maintain a level of stability. The supply chain is still rough. It's still hard. One of the things that is a limit for me, a challenge for me, is just our felting capacity. We just don't have the kind of machinery to do it as large scale as it could be. You know, right now I'm in a place where I'm pretty steady in terms of supply and demand. There's a lot more wool that could be used for this, but right now the sort of slowdown in, in the supply chain right now is just our felting capabilities. And so I get as much felt as I possibly can from My wonderful filter. I'm not able to sort of scale up in a way where... It's like me and a neighbor of mine.
Marie Hoff (37:17):
It's just the two of us, like, hand cutting and hand labeling these sponges still.
Clara Parkes (Host) (37:22):
Wow. That's a lot of work.
Marie Hoff (37:23):
To like scale up further and, you know, make them that much more available, you know, to start approaching maybe like larger chain stores, like Whole Foods or something like that. I can't supply Whole Foods right now. Like I, I couldn't even.
Clara Parkes (Host) (37:38):
You'd be overwhelmed.
New Speaker (37:40):
Yeah, no, I, I, that's not an option for me. But you know, that would be great if we could get there. but right now, right now the limit is the felting capability.
Clara Parkes (Host) (37:52):
So that's interesting that you have a felter who is flat out. So there is felt being made. There is a market for it, which is good to know. But everything is done in California. Right? Or do you have to... Is there a scourer?
Marie Hoff (38:09):
Um, not entirely. The scouring is done in Texas, which, you know, that's just, that's the only facility that in the U.S. That I can find that can do it. At least for the scale of, of wool that I get. None of the mills in California alone can do like a couple or a few thousand pounds of wool.
Clara Parkes (Host) (38:31):
New Speaker (38:32):
Uh, at a time. And that's a minimum for the, for the scourer in Texas.
Clara Parkes (Host) (38:38):
Marie Hoff (38:39):
Yeah. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Clara Parkes (Host) (38:41):
Thank God for them. And it really, it's also such a dramatic difference. If you were working with a smaller mill, thank goodness they exist, but that has a little mini scouring train, it could take them months to get through it. Right? The capacity is like 50 pounds a day or something?
Marie Hoff (38:59):
Yep. And it does. And I do also work with the smaller mills to do other things. I used Valley Oak Wool Mill to do the colors, the gray and the brown. Because that actually isn't grown... There's not enough of that that's grown to be able to approach Bollman about doing that. So that is done in California. And also my friends, Matt and Sarah who operate Mendocino Wool and Fiber Inc., they have some of my wool from my own sheep right now that is in line. It might become yarn in like four months.
Clara Parkes (Host) (39:42):
Sweet. Cause they're flat out too, right? So from where you're sitting, what, what do we need. If you were given ultimate authority to just make decisions and add things and you had like a bottomless budget, what would you start with?
Marie Hoff (39:58):
I would start with the mill. Yeah. I would do like the wool mill of our dreams. Fibershed actually did a feasibility study in 2012. Let's see, it was either a 26 or 29, I think it was $26 million price tag on that. And you know, honestly for California, for the Bay Area, there are investors who are like $26 mil, whatever. Right? But when approached about something like this, the potential for return is just, I get the impression it's just not so exciting. Right? I was never one of the people that went out and did any investor pitches on this wool mill. But the impression that I've gotten is it's kind of like going to somebody who is used to eating some sort of really sugary cereal for breakfast, and then adding sugar on top of it? And being like, hey, do you want to invest in this whole wheat slow fermented sourdough bread? It would be...
Clara Parkes (Host) (41:09):
Like no sugar at all.
Marie Hoff (41:11):
Wonderful and healthy. And the sugar cereal consumer investor is just like, I love the idea, but like what?
Clara Parkes (Host) (41:23):
Yeah. Why would I invest in flossing when I can just eat Snickers?
Marie Hoff (41:26):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Clara Parkes (Host) (41:29):
You don't think that the success of Allbirds, and their recent declaration that they're going to go public, but "we're not going to make a profit," I guess you'd have to brand it as the ultimate high-tech Silicon Valley WOOL MILL. Don't tell anyone.
Marie Hoff (41:43):
Yeah. Maybe. Honestly, there have been people that have been working on that. It hasn't come into fruition just yet, but, I still have hopes.
Clara Parkes (Host) (41:54):
Well, yeah. I mean the amount of money that is floating around, it's true in that realm, 10, 20, 30, 40 million is just a drop in the bucket. I mean, companies lose that every week and nobody bats an eye. And this would have such a deeper, more far reaching impact.
Marie Hoff (42:13):
New Speaker (42:16):
Okay. So anybody listening, if you have a 50 million to spare...
Marie Hoff (42:22):
Yeah. Put it into a wool mill in California, we might pay you back.
Clara Parkes (Host) (42:25):
Hey, they could pay you back in wool socks or something, you know?
Marie Hoff (42:30):
I mean, we'll pay you back in like climate change mitigation for goodness sake,
Clara Parkes (Host) (42:37):
Uh, helping heal the planet.
Marie Hoff (42:38):
Like we live here.
Clara Parkes (Host) (42:43):
Yeah. I don't know. The final question would be, you have the ears of people who are interested in wool. These are people who are interested in wool, and these are people who talk to other people about wool who don't know anything. What is the one thing you really, really, really wish people would finally understand about sheep or wool?
Marie Hoff (43:04):
You know, I'm gonna rely on this quote that I ran across recently. It's from Dr. Helen Crowley and the quote is, "Sourcing raw materials is the direct interface between business and nature." And that, that line is just like, that's what I do. That is what I'm interested in. And that, that is one of the most basic functioning principles that right now I think is really out of whack, and that we need to get back into whack. That relationship between what our material needs are, and what can be provided in a way that is beneficial rather than harmful to our environment.
Marie Hoff (43:59):
To me, that's like the basic crux of what we're trying to figure out. And it's what I'm trying to figure out. And I certainly don't think that what I'm doing alone is by any means any kind of, you know, it's not, it's not just one person that's gonna be able to do this. It's everybody using whatever sort of position that they're coming from. Whether it's somebody who is a knitter or somebody who's a shepherd or somebody who's an investor, somebody who's trying to wash their dishes. All of us looking at how do we heal this relationship between what our human material needs are for food, fiber, fuel, medicine, and what can come out of a productive regenerating landscape?
Clara Parkes (Host) (44:56):
How can we work together versus a scarcity mindset, where what I want is the most important and the consequences, pfffft, whatever.
Marie Hoff (45:05):
Yeah. Resisting a sort of a domination mindset. Right. I don't see how we could possibly heal anything through dominating. We heal things through relationships and through working through relationships. And that's really where I'm coming from as a business person, as a person who works with sheep. How do we do that? How do we shift from a system that has been developed so highly out of a sense of domination, and shift that into one that is about reciprocity and healthy relationships.
Clara Parkes (Host) (45:50):
Beautiful. Well, I'm going to let that be the final word on this matter. Marie, this has been a great pleasure. I really appreciate it.
Marie Hoff (45:59):
Of course. I'm so glad to be able to talk to you. The title of my business probably implies how much I enjoy things coming full circle. But for me, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that it really, it comes full circle. Because the reason I know who you are is through Stephany Wilkes mainly. And, Stephany Wilkes in part was inspired to go to sheep shearing school because of your book. So Stephany read your book, she went to sheep shearing school and met me. And then Stephany wrote her own book, and then through that, I learned who you were. And now I'm talking to you. I love that!
Clara Parkes (Host) (46:43):
I am honored to be a part of that circle.
Marie Hoff (46:45):
Clara Parkes (Host) (46:45):
That's that's healthy soil right there.
Marie Hoff (46:47):
Clara Parkes (Host) (46:49):
This has been a conversation with Marie Hoff, owner of Full Circle Wool, who is healing the planet one wool sponge at a time. Voices in Wool is made possible by members of The Wool Channel, a platform, publication and community dedicated to giving wool a voice in the world. To find out more, including how you too can join the flock and support the podcast, go to thewoolchannel.com. I'm Clara Parkes. And until next time, bye-bye.