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New wool mill in Fosston will be second largest in US

Stephenie Anderson, the owner of Northern Woolen Mills in Fosston, Minn., inspects some of the yarn her new processing plant is turning out. When at full capacity in about two weeks, Northern Woolen Mills will produce 100 pounds of yarn a day. GRAND FORKS HERALD/John Stennes

FOSSTON, Minn. — Stephenie Anderson’s timing for starting a wool-processing plant here is spot-on.

So says Bill Batchelder, president of Bemidji Woolen Mills, and Jim Stordahl, an extension agent in Polk County.

“There’s a renaissance nationwide of returning to products made in America,” Batchelder said. “There’s a large niche of consumers who are demanding natural fibers and American-made products, not ones made overseas.”

Stordahl agrees: “She’s part of a changing landscape, a movement where some of this (clothing) will be made back here.”

Anderson, a 45-year-old who grew up in Fertile, Minn., started her Northern Woolen Mills plant two months ago.

With eight employees, the business won’t have a big economic impact on this Polk County town of 1,500. However, it’s enough of a jolt that the city gave the fledgling business three acres of land in its industrial park on its western edge and a low-interest $100,000 loan.

Filling an opening

The plant’s processing starts with raw wool from sheared sheep and bison — mud, snarls and all — and turns it into fine, woolen yarn that is sold to clothing makers such as Bemidji Woolen Mills.

Anderson’s career track, which included management, tourism marketing and clothing design, took a dramatic turn after her employer had her lobby Bemidji Woolen Mills to resume the manufacturing of wool yarn. The company wasn’t interested, so Anderson filled the niche.

“I saw a need, an opening in the market, and decided to fill it myself,” she said. “Opportunity knocked and I went for it.”

Ironically, her first customer was Bemidji Woolen Mills.

The wool is all USA-grown, including from sheep ranchers in Fosston, Goodridge and McIntosh, Minn., and a bison producer in New Rockford, N.D. The equipment also can handle llama and alpaca wool.

When the equipment is all in place within two weeks, Anderson said, Northern Woolen Mills will produce 100 pounds of yarn per day, making it the second-largest processor in the country.

“I used to work in high heels and with (polished) fingernails,” she said. “Now I have grease on my hands and no fingernails. But it’s a lot more fun.”

Making an impact

Stordahl said the endeavor can have an impact at several levels.

“It’s certainly not a new 3M in the neighborhood and, for the average rancher, wool is a minor part of production,” he said. “But it does fill a niche. And wool has become a high-end fabric. If it’s high-quality wool, it is not scratchy to wear.”

Fosston has become “a hub of unusual agricultural niche products,” Stordahl said, citing the vegetable dehydrating plant in its industrial park as another example.

Chuck Lucken, Fosston’s city administrator, expressed excitement at a new business that didn’t seem likely even a few years ago.

“Any small industry we can get, whether it’s eight jobs or 50 jobs, is a good deal for us,” he said. “Who would have thought wool processing would come back?”

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