In our previous blog post, we introduced Dr. Carol Kerven and Sabyr Toigonbaev and their vital work with native cashmere goats in Kyrgyzstan. We continue our story of their work then and today, and how it led to the founding of June Cashmere. If you missed Part I or want a refresher, find it here: Part I: Kyrgyzstan and Cashmere: How did it lead to June Cashmere?
Sabyr assessing quality of cashmere. Photo by Carol Kerven.
Carol and Sabyr organize a conference
In 2012, Carol and Sabyr organized an international conference on high value animal fiber that took place in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. One of the goals of the conference was to make people aware of the quality of cashmere available in Kyrgyzstan so that they could find purchasers for the fiber. Attendees came from all over the world to talk about exquisite fibers, such as camel, mohair, alpaca, yak hair, and cashmere. A fellow named Sy Belohlavek joined in. At one point during the week-long conference, everyone was loaded onto a bus to visit the high mountains. They slept on the floors of yurts with shepherd families, just to see the goats. Many people then contacted Carol and Sabyr about purchasing the cashmere fiber, but potential buyers either didn’t understand the fiber’s value or weren’t willing to pay more for its quality. Sy, however, was different. He had read Carol and Sabyr's research reports and understood what the project was all about - helping shepherds through education and fair pay for their exquisite fiber.
In the late 1990s, a few international purchasers had discovered the cashmere fiber of the native goats in the remote villages of Kyrgyzstan but offered a very small, flat rate to shear the goats and take the fiber away. Shepherds didn’t know the value of their fiber, nor did they know that combing the fiber as it molts is a better way of collecting it – both for the goat (so it can keep its outer coat for warmth) and for the fiber. Being a short fiber, it would not be helpful to accidentally cut any of its length through shearing.
After that 2012 conference, Sy spent the next few years creating an infrastructure to purchase fiber directly from shepherds. He set up a Kyrgyz team to assess and pay shepherds using a 3-tiered payment system in which average quality fiber receives fair market value and higher quality fiber receives more than fair market value. Sy then guided the manufacturing of the fiber into yarn using small fiber processors in Great Britain, thus creating the June Cashmere yarn lines we offer today.
Grannies and kids come to sell their combed cashmere to Sy’s team. Photo by Sabyr Toigonbaev.
Effects of the cashmere program: what’s happening now?
In fall 2021, Carol and Sabyr traveled to the villages and interviewed shepherds to see how they feel about the program. Sy and his team are the main buyers in the region.
Carol and Sabyr interviewed in two areas: a valley where Sy and his team have been purchasing fiber for about 7 years and a valley where purchasing has taken place only for about 2 years. In the newer valley, they found tremendous enthusiasm for the program as a chance for cash and for planning a future. In the valley where purchasing is business as usual, Carol was told, “We can’t wait for cashmere season.” With one or two members of a family often migrating out of the area for work, it means a chance to earn money from their own resources.
Collecting cashmere. . . and income
Aqsakal farmer buying Tuvet Cashmere stud buck goats with certificate of cashmere test 14.5 micron from Mongolian fiber lab. Photo by Sabyr Toigonbaev.
Traditional combs for collecting other types of downy fiber existed in the region and replicas have been made so that shepherd families have access to the combs to collect their fiber. In fact, June Cashmere sells these combs on our website.
According to Carol, most of the combing is done by women and children. During her interviews, a 10-year-old boy shared that he used his cashmere money to purchase a soccer ball and soccer suit (uniform, as we would say). A young, unmarried woman shared that she used her share to pay for her college entrance exam. A family might opt to use the money to purchase another goat.
High altitude village all-black goat flock. Photo by Carol Kerven.
From 2008 – 2017, Carol and Sabyr had their own flock of cashmere goats in the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan. They used the flock to breed a high quality, low micron (referring to fineness of the fiber), whitish cashmere, and to prove that this could be done. Only about a quarter of Kyrgyz native goats are white, while cashmere micron and length varies a lot among farmers’ goats. A French company visited the flock, which convinced them to invest in Carol and Sabyr’s work, which in turn, allowed Carol and Sabyr to create their NGO, Tuvet Cashmere. White cashmere is very desirable by companies because of how dye sets onto the fiber color. Companies also want standard micron and length of cashmere for better processing.
Tuvet white flock. Photo by Sabyr Toigonbaev.
Their NGO is small but like all projects, they need funding to increase their scale of work, to continue breeding the native goat and educating shepherds. Ideally, they would expand their work throughout all of Kyrgyzstan and in tandem, June Cashmere would expand their purchasing. For both entities, it’s a story of persistence.
As Carol and Sabyr say, it's been a long journey. It’s a niche with a small but very high-quality product. It simply won’t expand without external assistance. The project helps people in a way that is not ecologically damaging. High mountain areas are dramatic areas—rocky and climatically harsh, where agricultural crops hardly grow. Farmers say that goats are suitable for these areas. As descendants of wild mountain goats, they need minimum shepherd guidance to go up the mountain and find food and then return. They nibble on bushes and are stable walkers on the rocks. This an area where goats work and produce excellent cashmere, that in turns gives money to shepherds.
It's an incredibly worthy project, indeed.
Good goat grazing 8,000 feet high along Chinese border. Photo by Carol Kerven.
Kerven et al. nitial Evaluation of the productivity and physical properties of a selection Kyrgyz cashmere goat breeding flock. Conference : IV. INTERNATIONAL EURASIAN AGRICULTUREANDNATURAL SCIENCESCONGRESS ONLINE, October 2020