Apparel merchandising and management and civil engineering professors were awarded a four-year, $241,000 USDA grant that will provide learn-by-doing research experiences for undergraduate students with U.S. sheep farms and wool use.
Sheep farmers who want to turn their wool into a valuable consumer product face barriers: little money offered for wool that must be cleaned before it is processed although it is renewable; long lead times to get wool back from fiber-processing mills; mills that are closing; and the extensive efforts farmers in rural areas must make to get their wool to a market.
In addition, many farmers are in areas that experience drought. From 2015 to 2017, farmers in upstate New York were trying to develop solutions to reuse water while washing raw wool on their farms to increase their self-sufficiency and maximize limited water resources.
In their project entitled “An Experiential Learning Approach: U.S. Wool and Water Re-Use for Sustainable Development,” Helen Trejo, an assistant professor in apparel merchandising and management, and Simeng Li, an assistant professor in civil engineering, proposed exploring ways to engage students with wool from U.S. sheep farms and develop a low-cost solution for wool wastewater treatment as a critical fiber processing step.
The USDA awarded them a grant through its National Institute of Food & Agriculture/Hispanic Serving Institutions program (NIFA/HSI), which seeks to increase rural prosperity and economic development. This project also addresses HSI educational needs to enhance curricula design, develop materials, increase students’ knowledge of library resources, and promote experiential learning.
Trejo and Li will develop interdisciplinary research courses that will provide learn-by-doing experiences for undergraduate students, expanding their knowledge about U.S. sheep farming, wool use, sustainability, the supply chain, and economic development.
Trejo and apparel merchandising and management students will conduct surveys with U.S. sheep farmers to identify the types of wool from different sheep breeds, current fiber processing practices including wool washing on or off the farm, final products created, efforts to reach their target market, and any environmental challenges such as drought. A goal is to source raw wool from sheep farms in lower income areas.
Raw wool has a natural wax or grease called lanolin that can account for up to 25 percent of its weight. The wool must be washed in hot water and detergent multiple times to remove the lanolin, dust, and dirt before it can be processed into yarn, clothing, or textile products.
Li and undergraduate civil engineering students will experiment with developing a low-cost water treatment approach to wool washing – which would allow reuse of the water – and evaluate its effectiveness with different types of raw wool.
One possible method is to use biochar – a charcoal-like substance often used as a soil amendment – to remove contaminants. Biochar is a low-cost and renewable option that could prove helpful for farmers, fiber mill owners, fiber and textile researchers, and fashion industry.
The project budget includes funds for undergraduate student assistants in each of the departments during the school year and summer over the next four years.
Students will gain undergraduate research experiences, develop strong research papers, and presentations that can be presented at academic conferences, be submitted to the Bronco Scholar Library Repository, and can contribute to future peer reviewed publications.
They will gain feedback from faculty and practitioners in the field. The experience can help them prepare for careers in food, agriculture, natural resources, and human sciences.
The project itself can expand researchers’ knowledge about the range of farmers’ experiences geographically and across diverse communities nationwide.
The research also can be helpful to farmers, fiber mill owners, fiber and textile researchers, as well as practitioners in the broader fashion industry that are seeking sustainable approaches and domestic production.