Feature

Farming fiber

Skeins of yarn hang in a vivid rainbow of hand-dyed colors. Rovings of carded wool spark imaginative visions of homespun crafts. Baskets of fluffy fleeces beg to be touched. Baby-soft scarves, hats and shawls beckon shoppers to admire their workmanship.

This is where agriculture meets art.

Offering everything from raw wool to finished goods, the annual Ozark Fiber Fling in Steelville, Mo., brings together farmers and artisans alike to celebrate the beauty, utility and versatility of fleece-producing animals and the creations they inspire. This November marks the 12th year for the lively event, which combines workshops, demonstrations and vendor booths for anything and everything related to the fiber arts.

“We want to bring people back to their natural resources and promote a heritage that’s beginning to be lost in our society,” said Lois Wissmann, one of the Fiber Fling’s founders and instructors. “Shining a light on fiber arts not only supports the American farmer, but it also supports the American craftsman.”

Like many of her fellow Flingers, Lois became a fiber artist after she began producing fiber animals. She and her husband, Don, bought their first sheep nearly 30 years ago as 4-H proj­ects for their now-grown children, Kim, Jon and Paul. The fam­ily tried several different breeds before settling on Columbia, a large-framed sheep raised for both meat and fiber. Developed in 1912, Columbia is one of the first all-American breeds of sheep, the product of USDA and university research in which Lincoln rams were crossed with Rambouillet ewes to create a hardy animal for western rangelands.

“When the kids grew up and were done with FFA and 4-H, we downsized the herd and stuck with the Columbias,” Don said. “Paul is our youngest, and that’s what he showed. Lois and I decided we liked the Columbias best. They have good mother­ing instincts and great growth characteristics. And we just love their personalities. The entertainment value of the lambs is just fantastic. They are so much fun to watch.”

Among only a handful of Columbia producers in Missouri, the Wissmanns maintain a small flock of these big sheep on their Raspberry Meadows Farm near Leasburg. They keep around a dozen ewes and a couple of rams, all of which are named and lovingly cared for by the devoted couple.

“With this breed, you get the best of everything,” Lois said. “They’ve given us so much—good fleece, good meat, good lambs. Most of all, they’ve given us satisfaction.”

Lois and Don are active in the Missouri Sheep Producers Association and the Columbia Sheep Breeders Association, which hosts a National Show and Sale each June. The Wiss­manns typically take several of their lambs to this event and may come back with new additions to their flock.

“At the show, judges are looking at things like genetics, conformation and wool quality,” Lois said. “Those are the same type of characteristics we look for in replacement ewes. What do I need to improve my animals? The 4-H motto is ‘To make the best better.’ It all comes back to that, even in other aspects of life.”

Along with good-quality alfalfa hay, the Wissmanns feed MFA’s 12% Sheep Pellets to the adults in the flock and MFA’s Lamb Starter/Grower to the younger animals. Lois said they feed twice a day, providing more nutrition during the winter and lactating months to ensure healthy lambs and reducing the amount of feed in the summer when grass is plentiful. The Wissmanns are customers of Farmers Coop Association #301 in Sullivan, an MFA local affiliate.

“MFA has great feed, and it shows when our sheep do well at the national level,” Lois said. “Our stock consistently places in the top 10 or even the top 5 of the Comeback Show, which is when junior members purchase a ewe lamb and return with it as a yearling next summer.”

Raspberry Meadows’ lambs are typically born from late fall through early February, which fits the timeframe when 4-H or FFA exhibitors are buying project animals. The Wissmanns also sell lambs off the farm when they are mature and ready for market. They’re especially popular at Christmas, Easter and ethnic holidays.

When it comes to the wool, the Wissmanns shear the sheep themselves, with each animal producing 10 to 12 pounds of fleece per shear­ing. Needing an outlet for that output, Lois learned to transform the wool into yarn and make her own homemade fiber crafts. She also enters the finest fleeces into competition and auctions at the national show and events closer to home, such as the Missouri State Fair.

“For smaller-scale producers like us, there isn’t a good market for the fleece, so the best thing to do is learn how to use it yourself or sell it to other fiber artists,” Lois said. “I would love to see some efforts to open up better markets for wool because it’s such a versatile, sustainable product. It can be used for insulation and erosion control, and its natural wicking properties make it the perfect material for uniforms and athletic clothing.”

Judging by participation in the Fiber Fling, other producers have the same dilemma. Many of the event’s vendors sell bags and baskets of fresh-from-the-farm fiber, not just from sheep but also from alpacas, angora goats, rabbits and even yaks. Others offer materials in various stages of processing—from rovings, which are carded but unspun bundles of fiber, to fin­ished skeins of yarn that are ready for crafting.

Many other vendors proudly peddle their own fiber creations, from clothing and coverings to home décor and handmade keepsakes. Still others display every imaginable tool of the trade for spinning, weaving, knitting, crocheting, felting and other fiber crafts.

“There aren’t a lot of brick-and-mortar stores anymore where you can find all these supplies under one roof,” Lois said. “We wanted to create an event that was not only good for the ven­dors—many of whom are farmers and artists themselves—but also good for the consumers.”

Although providing access to fiber-related products is an important draw, the educational aspect of the Fiber Fling is its true focus, said Ann Anderson of Dixon, Mo., another event organizer and instructor. The 2022 lineup includes 30 different classes over two days, covering such crafts such as embroidery, advanced crocheting techniques, spinning, basket weaving, batt making, needle felting and more. In addition, students can sign up for one-on-one tutorial opportunities in skills such as begin­ning spinning, crochet, knitting and weaving.

“Because we’re such a mobile society and not as insular as we used to be, events like this bring people together to learn and to exchange knowledge and ideas,” Ann said. “It keeps people engaged in something that is a lifelong hobby and keeps these skills alive.”

A great-aunt taught her how to crochet and sew as a child, but Ann said she didn’t do much with that knowledge until later in life. She met her husband, George, while they were in the U.S. Army and eventually ended up at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Once settled in the Show-Me State, Ann taught herself to quilt and got involved in a knitting group.

“I actually didn’t become a knitter until I was 50 years old,” she said. “Everything I teach now I have picked up in the last 18 years. Just goes to show, it’s never too late to learn.”

Fiber Fling participant Peggy Graham would agree. Even though she’s been knitting since she was 9 years old, she said there’s always something new to learn. She and a friend traveled from Carlinville, Ill., to attend the 2021 festival.

“I came to this in 2019, and it was the last fiber event I was able to attend before the pandemic,” said Peggy as she worked on a layered knitting project. “I really missed it and was determined that I was going to get here this time. I love the friendships, the camaraderie, and the fact that it’s all fiber people, who are awesome.”

Participation continues to grow every year, but the Fiber Fling remains a close-knit event, so to speak, to encourage inter­action among attendees and teachers. Both education and networking are essential to the future of the festival and fiber arts in general, Ann emphasized.

“Early on, we were excited if we had 30 students. Our largest has been 77 students,” she said. “This year, we had around 60. We want it to remain an intimate setting, so that we’re not overrun with people and can really provide some one-on-one instruc­tion. That’s the true value of an event like this—creating community. It’s important we have a cadre of people who can continue to pass these traditions from generation to generation.”

The 2022 Ozark Fiber Fling is planned for Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5, at the Meramec Baptist Retreat Center, 243 Highway AA, Steelville, Mo. For more information and to register for classes, visit ozarkfiberfling.com, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 573-759- 3378 and ask for Ann.

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Sharing MFA’s history

MFA HAS A STORIED HISTORY IN CHARITON COUNTY, MO. It was here, in a one-room schoolhouse just outside Brunswick, where a meeting of seven farmers in 1914 inspired the formation of what would become today’s MFA Incorporated and one of the largest agricultural cooperatives in the nation.

Norman Lenger, former manager of MFA Agri Services in Salisbury, Mo., is helping to preserve that co-op history. In May, he donated a 70-piece collection of MFA memorabilia to the Chariton County Historical Society and Museum (CCHS). Lenger worked for MFA for 39 years and eight months, and he and his wife, Pat, began collecting artifacts in the 1970s.

“We like to visit antique stores and see what interesting things they have,” Lenger said. “I started to pick up a few MFA items. I guess it just became a hobby.”

Lenger’s history with MFA is even more impressive than his memorabilia collection. He started working for MFA in 1965, the day after his high school graduation, as a laborer and truck driver. A year later, Lenger was drafted into the Army and served as a reconnaissance scout in Xuan Loc, Vietnam.

“I was shot up pretty severely—three times actually—and still have shrapnel in my body,” Lenger said. He was awarded three Purple Hearts for his time in Vietnam, where he served with the 11th Armored Cavalry during the Tet Counteroffensive.

When he came back home in 1968, MFA came calling again.

“One of my friends was managing the MFA in Boonville and asked me to work as the book­keeper,” Lenger said. “I told him that I didn’t know anything about keeping books. He said they would teach me. So, I said, ‘Sounds great. I’ll be there.’”

With his strong work ethic and determination, Lenger was promoted to assistant manager. Five years later, he became manager of the MFA Pilot Grove Exchange. In 1979, he and his family moved 50 miles north of Pilot Grove so he could become the manager of the Salisbury MFA elevator. For 27 years, the Lengers made their home in Chariton County, where they raised their two children, Christopher and Julie.

“In the 1980s and ’90s, I really started buying MFA items and saving them for…” Lenger paused, holding back emotion, “for future generations to see, I guess.”

Lenger’s remarkable collection includes an MFA gas pump globe from Salisbury MFA, many vintage feed and seed sacks, signs, promotional products, photographs, and items from the days when MFA had a grocery division.

Purchased for $1 each in an antique store in Hermann, Mo., Lenger has a couple issues of William Hirth’s The Missouri Farmer from the 1930s. Hirth acquired The Missouri Farmer and Breeder, now Today’s Farmer, in 1908. The magazine’s name was changed to The Missouri Farmer in 1912 and was owned by Hirth until his death in 1940.

The publication was used to promote improving farm life, es­tablishing farm clubs and using a cooperative business structure. Hirth’s ideas were appealing to farmer and stockman Aaron Bach­tel from Brunswick, Mo. Bachtel was so taken with Hirth’s view­points that he gathered six of his neighbors in Chariton County to discuss forming a cooperative to purchase farm supplies. After their meeting at the Newcomer Schoolhouse, the group placed an order for 1,150 pounds of binder twine with Hirth, thus launch­ing the cooperative now known as MFA.

Since MFA was organized in Chariton County, Lenger said he believed that his decades-long collection belongs here. Sharon Wilkey, president of the county museum, said she will add his items to the smaller collection of MFA memorabilia currently on display.

“We had a visitor who called us the ‘Smithsonian of Missouri,’ a tagline we have now adopted,” Wilkey said. “Norman’s generous gift of MFA memorabilia will greatly enhance our collection.”

Despite the breadth of his collection, Lenger said a few items eluded his search through the years.

“At one time, MFA was heavy in the dairy business. They had a herd improvement program where they would deliver bull semen to dairy farmers via airplane,” he explained. “MFA would fly over the farm and drop the capsules from the plane to the farmer. I read about the program but never found any memorabilia related to it.”

Lenger retired from MFA in December 2004. He and Pat moved to the Boonville area in 2006, near the family farm, which he now maintains. The farm, located near Wooldridge, has been in the family for 155 years. Lenger’s great-grandfather purchased the ground when he returned home from the Civil War in 1867.

“When I retired, somebody said, ‘Why don’t you stay for an even 40 years?’” Lenger said. “Well, if I stayed for an even 40 years, then I would have to go through another spring planting season, and that’s just too hectic.”

Keeping history alive for future generations seems to be one of Lenger’s life missions. During his years in Salisbury, Lenger helped with the upkeep of Newcomer Schoolhouse. When the building needed repairs, Lenger was there to coordinate.

With visible pride, Lenger watched emotionally as his daugh­ter, Julie McPike, arranged his items on a table in their new home at CCHS.

“It was fun to do,” Lenger said, reflecting on his MFA collection. “And now I think it’s time we pass it along. I want other people to enjoy it and see what it’s all about.”

The CCHS Museum is located at 115 East 2nd Street in Salisbury, Mo. For more information, visit online at www.charitoncountymuseum.org

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Weather or not, Training Camp continues

A WEATHER FORECAST OF 100% rain thwarted plans for MFA’s 2022 Training Camp field day, which was scheduled for Aug. 16 at the 20-acre research site in the Missouri River bot­toms outside Boonville, Mo. But no one complained about the change. After all, precipitation was welcomed in a year when MFA territory experienced wide­spread drought.

Instead, MFA staff adroitly switched last-minute gears and moved the field day program indoors to the Holiday Inn and Expo Center in Columbia, where the company’s annual Kickoff and Buyers Market was slated to start later that day.

“Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the most cooperative this year for touring the research plots in person, but it was nec­essary to continue on with the training,” said Cameron Horine, MFA precision data manager, who coordinated this year’s Training Camp and more than two dozen other replicated field trials across MFA’s trade territory. “It is important to give insight on new technologies and prod­ucts to our employees and keep them updated as well as reinforcing agronomic principles so they can confidently make recommendations to growers for the upcoming 2023 season.”

More than 300 employees and industry representatives from across MFA territory attended the reconfigured event, which featured 10 different presentations: MorCorn hybrids and MorSoy varieties, herbicide residuals, troubleshooting spreader issues, tar spot and fungicide use, nutrient-use efficiency and nitro­gen stabilizers, summer cover crops in 60-inch corn, silage production, alfalfa management and carbon:nitrogen ratio and nitrogen tie-up in corn.

Later in the summer, tours of the Train­ing Camp site were available to smaller groups of MFA employees and customers upon request. In addition to Boonville, MFA also conducts small-plot research on a 35-acre farm east of Columbia. The program not only includes studies designed by the MFA agronomy team but also evaluates emerging products from other agricultural vendors.

“We’re using these sites to test products to make sure they fit within our portfolio and that we’re bringing the best to our custom­ers,” Horine said. “But the other reason for our trials is applied agronomics. How is this going to help the producer? How can we make sure our recommendations make sense? And is it bringing an added benefit to the grower? Those are just a few of the questions we’re trying to answer every year.”

Although details on many trials won’t be available until after harvest, here are a few highlights and observations from this year’s research and Training Camp presentations. Look for more detailed information and charts in the March 2023 issue of Today’s Farmer.

STUDIES ON SILAGE

While grain production is most prevalent among row-crop growers in MFA territory, there has been increased interest in silage production—especially in years when drought condi­tions reduce productivity. That’s why, for the first time, MFA researchers devoted Training Camp real estate to study silage production, Horine said.

“In general, our research is solely focused on row crops for the grain market, not necessarily row crops for livestock markets,” Horine said. “The last couple of years, we’ve had a lot of requests to see some silage data, so we decided to dedicate space to study corn hybrids from that aspect.”

The silage plots consisted of eight different hybrids—four MorCorn, two DeKalb and two Brevant—at each research site. They were planted like other variety trials in four-row plots with four replications. Results are in the charts at left.

“We harvested the plots for weight so we could record tonnage per acre for each hybrid,” Horine said. “But high yield doesn’t necessarily mean high quality when it comes to silage. So we also pulled subsamples and sent them to Dairyland Labs to analyze important parameters such as total digestibility, pro­tein, fiber, net energy and relative feed quality.”

Though some growers may chop their corn­fields for silage as a salvage measure, Horine said MFA’s research is intended to help producers intentionally plan and manage a crop for silage.

“We wanted to give our agronomists and livestock specialists more confidence in the hy­brids they’re recommending for silage,” he said. “Specifically, we needed some of our own data on MorCorn silage hybrids, which helps show the flexibility of our line.”

FEED BETWEEN THE ROWS

Another new study for MFA agronomy researchers this year involved planting a summer cover crop mix between 60-inch rows of corn. The novel idea was conceived by MFA’s conservation specialists, Adam Jones and Landry Jones, for diversified

operations that include both row crops and livestock. The practice achieves a dual purpose—producing a cash grain crop while providing forage that’s ready to feed right after harvest.

“A lot of producers in our territory already turn cows out into the cornstalks and let them graze, so this just gives them extra material to eat,” Landry Jones explained to the Training Camp audience. “The cover crop helps with weed control while the cash crop is growing and then provides forage for livestock as soon as the combine leaves the field. Using that green, grow­ing material to turn forage into beef can very valuable to that operation.”

For the trial, the agronomists devised a cover crop mix suitable for summer, made up of cowpeas, millet, sun hemp, gourds and African cabbage. The corn was planted along with the other hybrid trials on May 12 at a population of 30,000 plants per acre, and then the cover crop was interseeded between the rows. The wider rows allow sunlight to reach the cover crop as the corn plants mature. Horine said the plot will be harvested for grain to determine what impact the cover crop may have had on yield, and the longevity of the forage growth will be measured as well.

“We planted the 60-inch rows at the rate of what 30-inch rows would be, so it’s tight,” Horine said. “Within a row, the plants are about 3 inches apart instead of normally 6.5 inch­es apart. Hopefully, this will allow us to determine return on investment by calculating grain yield along with the added benefits of feed for livestock. Knowing how that cover crop is going to affect our cash crop is very important.”

Soil health improvements provided by such a system should also be considered among the ROI measurements, Jones added.

“The longer we can have desirable plants growing on the landscape, the better our soil will be,” he said. “Cover crops positively impact soil health, water infiltration and storing of carbon. Plus, incorporating livestock can have profound effects on soil health because of the nutrients those animals return to the field. There’s a lot of benefits to these practices that are not necessarily tied to the dollars you get at the end of the day.”

Admittedly, Horine said, 60-inch corn and summer cover crops won’t fit every operation, but the study is intended to demonstrate MFA’s adaptability and innovation.

“It’s something different and something interesting, but we re­alize it’s not for everybody,” he said. “To make it work, you need to have a field that’s fenced so you can contain your animals. It could be a potential for marginal ground, where we’re not push­ing yields to the max, or for somebody who needs extra forage for their livestock.”

BEYOND DISEASE CONTROL

The good news for growers this year was that disease pressure was minimal in most crops. But that’s bad news for agronomic researchers who want to study the effects of crop protection products on disease control.

The silver lining, Horine said, is that a season with low disease pressure provides an opportunity to study the plant health benefits of products such as fungicides and biostimulants without the added variable of disease.

“For years, we have talked about the benefits of fungicides being applied to your crop, mainly for disease control, but also overall plant health and yield boost,” Horine said. “This year, we should have a really good opportunity to see just how much advantage we can gain in these areas because we don’t have to consider disease pressure in the picture.”

At both sites, multi-year research continued to evaluate fun­gicide application timing for corn and soybeans. Studies were designed with an untreated check, a vegetative application and five timings during the reproductive stages of growth. Different fungicide brands and their effect on various hybrids and varieties were also considered.

New this year, Horine and his team took these trials a step further by testing combinations of fungicides and biostimulants or plant growth regulators (PGR). Biostimulants are substances or micro-organisms that stimulate a plant’s natural processes to benefit nutrient uptake, nutrient-use efficiency and crop quality. PGRs are synthetic or biological compounds that positively benefit and modify the plant’s growth and development. These types of products have garnered attention among growers in recent years and spawned multiple compa­nies and products entering the marketplace.

“We’ve got a lot of progressive farmers who want to push yields, and they’re looking for that next thing to give them a boost,” Horine said. “A biostimulant or PGR could fit that bill. We have quite a few studies with these products alone, but we also wanted to know if there’s some extra advantage to using them in combination with certain fungicides. With the forecast of fertilizer markets and the state of political change in farming practices, these product types may become necessary to continue to push our yields forward in the future.”

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