Combing qiviut keeps staff busy at Musk Ox Farm
Musk ox at the farm in Palmer had a little help shedding their winter weight to get ready for summer. Staff at the nonprofit spend this time of year combing out qiviut — the soft undercoat that keeps musk ox warm on the frigid tundra in the wild.
“When they’re ready, it’s like putting a hot knife through butter. It just peels away,” said herd manager Janelle Curtis.
She picked out sheets of wool from a steer named Storm and quickly filled up a large plastic tub.
“That’s about a half a pound in just a few minutes,” Curtis said.
Aside from a few animals at the university in Fairbanks, executive director Mark Austin said the Palmer Musk Ox Farm is the only place in the world that collects hand-combed fiber. It’s part of the farm’s mission of sustainable agriculture — the goal is to domesticate the animals so they can be used for farming in rural Alaska.
Fiber is sold to knitters, who can make it into clothing to turn a profit. Austin said it’s a way to bring in money to communities where jobs aren’t always available.
“I’ve always said the best way to make money in rural Alaska is to leave rural Alaska,” he said. “It’s horribly disruptive to families and traditions and incredibly rich communities and cultures, but when it comes to bringing cash in sometimes that can be fleeting so we’re trying to find ways to have cash come into a community like that.”
The Musk Ox Farm sells bulk qiviut to Oomingmak, which is a producer’s co-op in Anchorage. The rest of the fiber is spun into yarn and sold at the gift shop, along with scarfs and mittens.
Thanks to the warm spring weather, combing is about three weeks ahead of schedule. The amount of qiviut each animal produces gets recorded. An 800-pound steer like Storm will yield about five pounds.
By the first week of May the farm already had three large bags stuffed full.
“We’re a third of the way through,” Curtis said. “We had over 300 pounds last year so we’re hoping to match that, maybe get a little more.”
It’s all about bringing sustainability to the bush and giving the bushy brutes a new summer hair do.