February 23, 2023 4 min read
Mother Nature got it right with wool. It's really an amazing fabric. It keeps you warm when you're wet, it can keep you cool when you're dry, it's easy to care for. It's kind of funny that now that we think of wool like, “Wow, this miracle fiber, where did it come from?," but you know we've been living in wool for eight, nine thousand years. We’re finding that people are coming back to wool especially with the technology that we're adding. We basically have bred the itchiness out of wool. That's a recent technological advance as we've had laser technology that can measure wool now. Those coarser wool sweaters that your grandma had and you know that grandpa wore, we don't have that anymore. It's so soft that people can't believe it's wool. It really changes people's perception.
It's getting harder and harder to get into agriculture, unless you're lucky enough and blessed like we are to be able to grow up in agriculture. It's a difficult lifestyle, working on a ranch is not for the faint of heart. You know as families get bigger ranches need to expand or grow with them. The complications of that are sometimes pretty great.
This is the Helle ranch, also known as Helle Rambille. We're in Dillon, Montana. My family has been stewarding this land for four generations now. Our sheep basin has been in Carter Creek here since 1972, but my grandfather was leasing it in the 30s. Kind of unique that we're sitting right where the first sheep in Montana came into about 150 years ago. I just love this area and it's very well suited to sheep.
In the late 80s I graduated from college and I wanted to bring something back to the sheep operation. It's been a lot of time trying to find out what we could do on the farm to really add value to our wool. We started bringing our wool clip up to international wool standards. We've worked a lot on our genetics too. Selling to the commodities market you're basically told what price they'll get for it, no matter how much better it is. We knew we needed to forge our own market. We got really lucky in meeting some brand developers that had a passion for wool and wanted to start a made in America wool company.
We founded the company Duckworth to take our wool vertically integrated into the apparel business. Duckworth is the only source-verified Merino apparel company in the United States. We make everything from base layer to mid layers and outer layers. All the wool comes from the ranch here and stays within the United States. I wanted to come back to work on the ranch. I was really fortunate to work for Duckworth right when I got out of college. Took my business and economics degree and helped start building this company and it's been a lot of fun.
I work with my dad everyday on different projects. He works a lot in the management of the ranch business and I focus on the integration of the ranch and Duckworth. Spinning all the yarn and then knitting the fabric. I hand that fabric off to the product team and they make excellent garments with it. Everything we do we use our model from Sheep to Shelf. The Duckworth team is a pretty small team but very effective. It does take a little bit more work to really get that premium wool product, but seeing the end consumer wearing that, that's the ultimate reward.
And I think the socks were really one of the things that brought the wool thing back around. Wool socks are just amazing, if you don't wear wool socks all the time you're missing out on something. And then some of these other companies were instrumental in helping this. You know Smartwool, and everybody asked me “well do you worry about your competition?," and I said well, wool textiles were less than 3% of world textiles. Those of us in the wool industry I think have a lot to benefit from working together. We're all promoting the wool industry and the wool textile industry.
There's so much fast-fashion where people are buying cheap clothing and throwing it away. People want to have a little bit more value to what they buy. With Duckworth we can give them a garment that has a story with it, a little bit of the ranch with it. Understanding how it's made, where it came from, people appreciate that. It makes it a little more special. And they can keep it for a very long time and maybe even someday pass it on to their grandchildren as an old sweater that just won't wear out because it was made right.
As far as what my grandfather and my father, what I've done on this operation, is tried to build a legacy. It's very rewarding to have your children come home and want to be part of it. Expanding into other business ventures is also a way that we can make room for family members to come in. When I came back I brought my animal science degree and built a genetic operation on the ranch. And with Evan’s expertise with Duckworth and business, it's our commitment to keep that moving forward. I think it's very important that we don't lose these parts of agriculture that are vital to you know rural economies and the rural way of life.
There are new challenges every day. We're fortunate enough to have so much demand for our product that we're just working as hard as we can to meet that demand as we grow. We're still pretty young but we've caught on really quickly and gained tons of momentum. There's nothing better than getting the younger generation enthralled in debt so they have a pretty good reason to stick around. I'm really excited that the fifth generation of my family is on the way. Life just keeps going and making room for is you know you we’re committed to it.