How an Alaska fiber mill survived the pandemic, despite plummeting sales and low supply

There is a small flock of sheep at the Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill in Fairbanks, but not enough to sustain operations. (Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill)

A Fairbanks fiber mill was just starting to thrive when the coronavirus pandemic forced its owner to scale back plans and employees.

Kate Wattum, the owner of Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill, said 2020 was full of mixed emotions.

“COVID has devastated my business,” she said. “Yet my life, my home life, my family life, is so much better.”

Wattum began to visualize her business of turning raw animal fibers into yarn when she was nearing retirement from a job at the University of Alaska.

“I knew I wasn’t a person who could sit and go on cruises,” she said. “So, I was planning for my retirement.”

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Wattum wanted to create more opportunities for small farmers to get value from animal fibers that might otherwise go to waste. For instance, wool from sheep.

At her mill, Alaskans can have their fiber processed and returned to them. Or, they can sell fiber to the mill.

Ben Waddum stands near a piece of equipment at the fiber mill (Photo courtesy Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill)

Wattum said a love of fiber has been in her family for a long time.

“My grandmother was always knitting something,” she said. “And was always looking and going to fiber mills when she would travel. She would be beside herself right now. She would be right here, 100% with me.”

Wattum began operating in 2016, after purchasing a mill that was driven to her all the way from Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. But it wasn’t until 2020 she felt like she’d hit her stride. Wattum had five part-time employees and was looking forward to a profitable summer.

Then, the pandemic hit.

“So immediately within the first month, my sales plummeted,” said Wattum. “And the fiber coming in the door stopped.”

Instead of adding employees, she had to lay off all but one.

“And I had people in line to get jobs and I said, ‘Hold the phone. The world is changing. Don’t quit your day job. I’ll get back to you in a month,’” she said. “And as we know, it didn’t happen that way.”

She did get some money from the Paycheck Protection Program, which she said helped.

Wattum realized just how dependent her business was on a thriving tourism industry. Even canceled summer events impacted her sales.

“Let’s say somebody was preparing to sell dryer balls, wool dryer balls for the Alaska State Fair. And they might have been paying me $5,000 to clean all their wool, their entire fleece,” she said. “The fair was canceled.”

Wattum’s fiber intake from animals around the state dropped off, too. So she and her dad began to tour farms around Alaska, connecting with the owners of a herd of Suffolk sheep in Wasilla, and a herd of Shetland sheep in Palmer.

Then they began making deals.

“I didn’t have any money,” said Wattum. “They didn’t have any money. So we took their fiber, and we processed it, and we gave half of the fiber back to them.”

She’s also in touch with the owner of a flock of Merino sheep moving to Alaska this summer. Wattum said the 50-50 split strategy helped keep her remaining employee busy, but didn’t make a lot of sense financially.

“There is no money when you’re giving half of your profit away,” said Wattum.

Kate Wattum owns Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill. (Coyote Trail Farm and Fiber Mill)

The fiber process is pretty extensive — there are a lot of steps, and it takes a long time to get from raw fiber to yarn and other products. Certain fibers, like qiviut from muskox, are more valuable than others.

Wattum needed to find ways to make the whole process and her business more profitable.

She said she’s had to make some changes this year including expanding her farm, and adding an online store to her website. Now, anyone can buy a skein of yarn, a wool roving or a pair of socks.

Wattum asked Alaskans to consider supporting Alaska-made products.

“The part that I would like to share the most is for people to look around with some of their expendable income as we come out of COVID,” said Wattum. “And look to the farmer’s markets. Look to the people that are developing on the side industries that are important to the state of Alaska.”

Wattum said she’s also looking forward to a tourism season that’s shaping up to be a lot more profitable than last year.

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