Harvesting and collecting the golden fleece through the eyes of several farmers who are members of the Union’s cooperatives.

Between climate and technique: the harvest

It is 6 o’clock in the morning when Gankhuyag and his wife Sosorbaram get out of the yurt this May morning. Like the majority of goat breeders, they are going to devote themselves to their daily spring tasks. Gankhuyag brings the herd of small ruminants -goats and sheep- to graze by separating the males from the females while Soso and his beautiful mother give the bottle to the newborn kids. From 8 o’clock the whole family meets at the level of the khoroo (the enclosure) where are parked about twenty goats, waiting.

The hour of the combing sounded. The down – called cashmere – in full moult of the capra hircus is going to be collected. This task is carried out once a year, in the spring, nowadays between mid April and end of May. In 1990, Gantumur remembers “starting the cashmere harvest around March 10 when the goats were healthy and the weather was not harsh after that date. Nowadays the harvest starts around April 15”. The climate change has brought its share of adaptation. The combing period also depends on the outside temperature. Do not comb too early because of a late cold which would put in suffering -even kill- the goats. Nor too late to preserve the quality of the cashmere -avoiding the increase of dandruff and coarse hair. Combing is not done if there are strong sandstorms, since sand and dust are factors of pollution of this golden fleece. Tsevelmaa explains that “the important thing is the animal health. Be careful with the return of the cold: the animals can die at this time. That’s why the borlon (youngest) are combed last”. Indeed, during the combing process, the age and sex of the animal are taken into account. Through the cooperatives of the Union, the breeders first collect the cashmere of the most resistant animals to climatic variations: the males, then the females and lastly the youngest aged 1 year.

In the khoroo there is either a yurt built for this purpose or a stone construction with openings – symbolic of the Gobi dwellings. The goats are seized one after the other, immobilized on the ground in order to tie their legs – by 3- with a rope to handle them without injury. The combing is done either on a piece of cloth or on a rubber mat, to avoid direct contact with the dusty ground. For more convenience on some animals, the long hairs on the back and flanks are cut with a scissor before starting the combing. It takes an adult person about 40 minutes to comb a male goat. The time varies from 30 to 50 minutes depending on the size and age of the animal. The down hair is collected with an iron comb whose size and spacing of the claws vary depending on the combing location and the amount to be collected. Three types are used to refine the combing. The sensitivity of goats in the neck, nape and legs requires the use of the smallest comb. This tool must be handled with care and requires careful handling so as not to irritate the animals’ skin. According to Gundo it is necessary to “find a balance between a soft combing -synonymous of waste of time- and strong -which would irritate the skin of the goats being able to give them fever”. The right balance, respectful of the animal, is between a lively but delicate gesture, more or less rapid according to the experience of the individuals. This traditional technique learned first by observing ancestral practices was completed by the training provided by AVSF when the cooperatives were created.

Each individual tries to find his or her own comfort level for this task, sitting on the ground or slightly elevated on a stool, combing is nevertheless a repetitive and tiring activity where the back and arms are put to the test. All the more so as it takes place at a time of overwork referring to the birth period. As Gundo and his wife grow older, they secretly admit to “a loss of vigor and tenacity”. Another notorious difficulty lies in the areas of the coat where there are knots that are difficult to untie, so agility and patience are required. At the end of the combing of each goat, some families put a strand of paint on one of the horns to identify them. On the other hand, others are not in favor of this gesture which can sometimes leave a mark on the wool of other animals in case of contact.

From the quality of the raw material to mutual aid

“The weight of cashmere harvested varies from year to year depending on the physical condition of the goats and the food ingested during the year” according to Gantumur. Indeed, the harvest of the golden fleece depends on the health of the animals, their age and sex. On average, the annual quantity of down harvested per goat corresponds to 300 grams for a borlon, 400g for a female and 500g for a male. The cashmere collected through the comb is moistened and compressed on the comb to make rows that will create, during its removal, homogeneous balls. The quantity of raw cashmere harvested by the cooperatives of the Union is 30 tons for the year 2020. In the world, over the same year, the quantity of cashmere production is estimated at 30 000 tons.

The instruction for the breeders of the Union’s cooperatives, written in the charter, is to harvest cashmere “as clean as possible, without dung and with a small amount of dandruff in the hair” insists Gankhuyag; so that it meets the criteria of the luxury industry. The breeders sort their cashmere at harvest time according to the three natural colors -white, beige and brown- of the age and sex of the goats which correspond to different quality categories. This sorting is meticulous and requires organization. The breeders have been trained by AVSF to do this. This task, which at first was seen as “a constraint, has become a habit, even a necessary reflex,” says Oyuntsetseg. Each category is directly stored in an approved polypropylene bag to avoid any contamination of the cashmere, especially by plastic fibers. The quality of the fiber is also reflected in its length and diameter (μ). In 2020, for Union breeders, it oscillates from 15μ to 16.8μ for a length ranging from 38mm to 41mm.

The spring season being the heaviest in terms of tasks to be carried out, it is frequent that the breeders living in the same bag (hamlet) help each other during the combing. For this reason, the breeders with the least livestock -less than 400 head- “go around the bag to offer their services as labor during the harvest period: a job in its own right. The daily wage amounts to 100,000 ₮. For others it is 4,000₮ per combed goat,” explains Tsevelmaa. It is a budget for the wealthiest herders, an income for the most vulnerable. Some herders, like Uunkhbat, do favors for each other on the basis of a goodwill exchange, “you help us comb and then we’ll come in turn,” in order to be more efficient in a shorter time. Each year the representatives of the five cooperatives of the Union evaluate the number of kilos of sorted raw cashmere that a member can deliver. The Union’s office in Ulaanbaatar, which is responsible for marketing dehaired cashmere, takes this estimate into account when determining the number of essential buyers.

The moment of collection: the sorting in the cooperatives

The harvested cashmere is kept in a safe place at each breeder’s home. It is then transported by truck, car or motorcycle by the owners to the cooperatives’ hangar which is located in the center of the district. Through the Union, a mutual aid towards the most needy -who are not in physical capacity or for logistic reasons- is implemented for the transport.

The moment of the collection has arrived. It is located in an airy, insulated shed that meets all the safety standards for carrying out this final task in the countryside. The breeders bring the cashmere over a period extending from 3 weeks to a month, between mid-May and the end of June. The bags containing the raw material are first weighed to know the quantity and then emptied on the sorting table designed for this purpose. Each ball will be carefully inspected by the president and the executive director of the cooperative, under the watchful eye of the breeders, in order to preserve only the best quality. The sorting is done by hand and a mask is worn to protect against the volatile and irritating dust in the long term. It is carried out by touch and visually; based on criteria related to quality: damaged, dirty -dandruff in the hairs/drawings-, dry parts are not saved. The cashmere that is kept remains in a box for the time of the sorting, after which it is weighed, numbered and stored in an approved polypropylene bale -to avoid any pollution of the fibers- for the capital. The rest, not purchased by the cooperative, is returned to the breeder.

The filled cashmere bales weigh between 60 and 80kg. Once complete, they are sealed under the control of the coop’s president, executive director and accountant. The stored cashmere will be traceable from its source via a slip -Bale Sheet Form- made in duplicate (cooperative-breeder) including the information related to the cashmere. This includes the name of the breeder and the quantity of raw cashmere weighed before and after sorting, the acceptance rate kept by the cooperative, the category to which the fiber belongs, the price of the cashmere, the payment made and the signature of both parties. The bales are then stored in the locked shed and will be transported by truck – once all the raw material has been harvested – to the industries in Ulaanbaatar.

Union cashmere is sold dehaired on local and international markets. That is to say, washed of all impurities and ready to be spun. The price of cashmere varies from year to year. It fluctuates according to supply and demand based on international standards. Through the training of its breeders and to be consistent with its values, the Union ensures the sustainability of wool production. In a vision focused on sustainability, the Union can only hope that the words of Gundo are prophetic: “white gold -cashmere- has no limit in duration whereas yellow gold will end one day”.